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Student Spotlight: Colin Hunter

Bringing art and design into the aerospace engineering field

Colin Hunter holds 48” x 48” x 6” geometric paper structure using blue ink washed paper on gaterboard.
Visualization of Molecular Fractal Motifs by Colin Hunter | 48” x 48” x 6” Paper Sculpture Made from Gouache ink on paper on Gatorboard and PVA Glue | The piece is based on the 6‑fold perspective of an infinite lattice structure.

When he’s collaborating with the University of Michigan Department of Aerospace Engineering as a design consultant for the school’s Composite Structures Lab, Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design sophomore Colin Hunter often challenges his team to think outside of the box. 

The unusual match happened when researchers sought for someone to help fold paper structures to inform different types of deployable structures in space. They didn’t have to look much further than Stamps – where Hunter, a current student, specializes in 3D designs using additive manufacturing, paper engineering, and Computer Aided Design.

Hunter has since found his purpose using his Stamps education and perspective within the world of STEM – a somewhat non-traditional route for art and design students. The experience has given Hunter a passion for interdisciplinary design, which he is currently pursuing as a minor.

It’s great as an artist to be able to come into the engineering space and have meaningful contributions to STEM,” Hunter said. I believe that interdisciplinary research and bringing in people from different backgrounds is the future of STEM and engineering as a whole. You have people who are trained in a similar way, and have a similar way of thinking because of that training. When you bring in a designer that has a different background, it lends to innovation.”

When you bring in a designer that has a different background, it leads to innovation.”

At first, Hunter felt imposter syndrome in his role, where he helps design deployable space structures, energy absorption devices, meta-materials and auxetic structures that take inspiration from origami and paper folding. But Hunter soon realized that his design-oriented thinking had a place at the table. 

I might suggest an idea that some engineers might not think of. The huge role that I’ve played is just spitballing ideas,” Hunter said. I don’t know how feasible they might be, but I’m just like, Hey, what if we curve it? Instead of it being a straight line, why don’t we make a curve? Maybe we can use this material, and so on.’”

White gel pen on Mi Tienes Turquoise paper. The geometric design is based on planetary orbit diagrams.
Algorithm 005 Drawing by Colin Hunter | 12″ x 12″ White gel pen on Mi Tienes Turquoise | The Algorithm” Print series is based on mathematics similar to planetary orbit diagrams.

Interdisciplinary design has also been a way for Hunter to embrace his mathematical side, which drives his personal work. 

Math has been a theme throughout most of the work I do,” Hunter said. In high school, I remember that I was learning about polar equations. I remember asking my teacher if I could make art with it. It took me forever to make these planetary orbit diagrams. One thing I would draw was really technical, geometric drawings and I explored patterns, tiling, and different types of tessellations. Geometry was always something that really spoke to me.” 

When doing research about how to make his work 3D in his hometown in Montana, Hunter stumbled upon Matt Shlian, a former lecturer at Stamps. Hunter became fascinated by Shlian’s work with paper engineering.” He made the move to Ann Arbor in 2019, where he worked for Shlian as a studio assistant for two years. In the time working with Shlian, Hunter not only learned more about the craft, but the possibilities at Stamps.

Matt showed me that I could do this art thing for real,” Hunter said. He sort of convinced me to go to art school, and Stamps would give me the opportunity to explore interdisciplinary work. It’s embedded in a larger university as a whole. There’s so many other types of curriculum you can pursue, which is something that I have gotten lucky enough to do with aerospace engineering.” 

Geometric white paper sculpture on black background.
Meta Material 1 by Colin Hunter | 14” x 14” x 8” Flexible Paper Sculpture made from white paper and PVA Glue | This sculpture is an investigation into architected meta materials. These materials are defined by their ability to exhibit characteristics not usually found in natural structures.

At Stamps, Hunter has found a place on the Student Advisory Council. He’s grown to love the Stamps community, especially when he takes part in meaningful critiques.

We just had our first critique in Intro to Sculpture. I think that’s probably one of the best critiques I’ve ever been in,” Hunter said. We’d been working on these metal sculptures for so long, and everyone just sat down, said as much as they could about other people’s work, and helped each other. I just kept thinking to myself: this is why I’m here.’”

At the Composite Structure Lab at the Department of Aerospace Engineering, studio spaces at Stamps, and everywhere in between, Hunter has managed to incorporate a combination of disciplines in his work. He combined his love for computer graphics and paper artistry into his video, Remediation Project, which was selected as the recipient of the Excellence in the Practice of Writing category at the Excellence in First-Year Writing Awards from the Gayle Morris Sweetland Center for Writing at U‑M in April 2022

Hunter’s secret? Gravitating towards what you’re passionate about. 

Make work that you believe in. Once you find that, it’s so easy to put hours into something. That’s what I’m a big proponent of.”

For more information about Colin Hunter’s work, visit his website.

Story by Katelyn Stuck.