The first American artist to paint an abstract painting was a civil engineer, and an upcoming exhibition at the Perspective Gallery in Squires Student Center demonstrates that Manierre Dawson's profession was not a deterrent to his creativity but rather his primary source of inspiration.

Through a series of photographic panels and a DVD program, the exhibit, Manierre Dawson: Engineer/Artist, on display Feb. 24 through March 28 in the Perspective Gallery, traces the impact of Dawson’s civil engineering courses on his paintings. An opening reception will be held Monday, Feb. 23 from 4 to 6 p.m. in the gallery. The university community and the public are invited to attend.

Manierre Dawson (1887-1969) was one of the most innovative artists of the first half of the twentieth century. In 1910, he produced a series of seven abstract compositions, making him the first American artist to paint abstractly. When he painted his first abstractions, Dawson was a recent graduate of the Armour Institute of Technology (now the Illinois Institute of Technology) and a first-year employee of Holabird and Roche, a prominent Chicago architectural firm. Elements of his paintings leading up and including his first abstract paintings and his conception of abstract art itself are a direct result of his civil engineering training. Why a twenty-two-year-old civil engineer produced abstract paintings in Chicago in 1910, a year before Arthur Dove in New York and Vasily Kandinsky in Munich, has been one of the great mysteries in modern art. His accomplishments defy the conventional explanation of the spread of modernism from Europe to the United States.

Nearly every significant development in Dawson’s early career, especially his first abstract paintings, can be explained by the engineering courses he took at Armour Tech. The primary focus of this exhibition is Dawson’s first abstract paintings. They are his most remarkable achievement and, historically, the most enigmatic aspect of his career. The exhibition links visual motifs in these paintings, as well as the concept of abstract art, to his engineering courses. This requires a specific knowledge of the education Dawson received so a concise history of civil engineering methods as they were taught a hundred years ago is included. Furthermore, the influence of his college training and employment as an engineer did not end with his early abstractions. The exhibition spans the first ten years of Dawson’s career, the period when his civil engineering training is most evident in his paintings.

The Perspective Gallery, on the second floor of Squires Student Center on the Virginia Tech campus, is free and open to the public Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, noon to 10 p.m. For more information on the Perspective Gallery, call Mary Tartaro at (540) 231-4053.

Manierre Dawson: Engineer/Artist is sponsored by Virginia Tech’s University Unions and Student Activities. University Unions and Student Activities, a unit within the Division of Student Affairs at Virginia Tech, complements the academic program by providing a variety of activities, educational opportunities, programs, facilities, and services that enhance student development and enrich the quality of campus life at Virginia Tech. Find more information on University Unions and Student Activities online.