Inside Purdue Engineering: Beautify Grissom

A competition for IE students asks them to answer the prompt "What does industrial engineering mean to you?" in the form of a painting. Though a cash prize is awarded, the ultimate prize serves to spice up Grissom Hall, as winners of the competition have their canvases displayed within the building.

When Sara McComb joined Purdue faculty in 2011 and walked through Grissom Hall, she realized it hadn’t changed much since she was a doctoral student 15 years earlier.

The walls were beige, boring and mostly bare.

Though the building had undergone some renovations for maintenance, repair and repurposing since being constructed in the early 1900s, it still largely was uninspiring.

That dreary look sparked an idea.

“What could we do to beautify this place?” she wondered.

Interior of Grissom Hall lobby, with paintings on walls
The updated entryway lobby for Grissom Hall displays the most recent winners of the Beautify Grissom contest. (Photo: Shayan Bawaney)

McComb knew industrial engineers were much more than what some perceived and had interests beyond academic pursuits. So in 2013, McComb shared an idea with colleagues: A competition for IE students that asked them to answer the prompt “What does industrial engineering mean to you?” in the form of a painting. Though a cash prize would be awarded, the ultimate prize would serve to spice up the space, as winners of the competition would have their canvases displayed within Grissom Hall.

Patrick Brunese, an IE alum who joined the School staff in 2011, loved the idea.

“In part, showcasing the creativity was a way to brighten the space, make the environment more inviting and show you were making a lasting impact on the space you spent a lot of time in as a student. To me, that’s one of the more special things about it,” said Brunese, now the School’s assistant head.

Buy-in came from leadership in the School of Industrial Engineering, and the first “Beautify Grissom” contest was held in the spring of 2013. It has expanded considerably since — and not just in terms of submissions.

In 2014-2015, the 50,000-square-foot Grissom Hall was gutted and renovated. The canvases from the first few competitions were selectively added in the redesign, and at least three have been added every year since, livening up the stairwells and providing punches of color in the modern-looking new lobby.

“Over the years, I’ve seen how murals and artwork make a place warmer and more inviting,” said McComb, who spent 11 years as a professor in IE before moving to a full-time appointment with the School of Nursing. “I’ve also realized over the past 20-plus years working with students that we only scratch the surface of what they have to offer when we focus solely on academics. This opportunity allows us to showcase some of their other talents and, at the same time, create an archival history of what IE means to the students that brightens up the building.”

The 2022 contest completed its registration in February, and final canvases will be displayed in Grissom Hall to be judged in April. The School of Industrial Engineering sponsors the contest in partnership with the Purdue student chapter of the Institute of Industrial and Systems Engineers (IISE), which runs the competition. Finalists are selected by IE faculty and staff, and winners are voted on by the IE community at large. The Industrial Engineering Advisory Council presents the prizes to the winning students.

“I have not heard of any other schools, either in Purdue or outside of Purdue, that have a competition similar to this,” said IE’s lead academic advisor Elizabeth Pearson, who started in the school in 2014.

Why art?

At first glance, the competition may seem an unlikely pairing. Engineers plus art?

Engineers certainly are most comfortable narrowing a focus to a particular niche area of research, experiencing joy from the chase, in finding the next big problem to solve and pouring every ounce of time and energy into such pursuits. But this competition provides a different opportunity, a welcome respite for some to make a very public point: “It’s a great reminder for students that you're not just an engineer. You can be so many different things,” Pearson said of the contest.

That’s a sentiment McComb was hoping would be magnified by the contest.

And she’s happy to say it has.

“It’s been really amazing to see how truly talented and artistic some of our students are,” McComb said. “Every year I look forward to seeing just how creative they can be as they disprove the ‘boring engineers’ stereotype. As you look at the paintings over the years, you’ll see that they all offer different, yet extremely clever, depictions of industrial engineering.”

In some ways, the competition activates and stirs the mind differently than engineering. It fosters originality and allows freedom to create, without many constraints.

And it allows students to showcase more of who they are.

“It makes me super excited that all of the engineering schools do have their own traditions because that gives everyone their own sense of belonging. But I do love that IE’s is artistic,” said IE senior Bethany Lengacher, who won the 2020 competition. “I love that it's art-based. So many students at Purdue feel like they have to put themselves in a box, like they have to be an academic, like they have to be a tech person or they have to be an ME, an AAE. And the truth is you're going to be so much more well-rounded if you don't put yourself in that box. Allow yourself to be in all kinds of boxes.

“For me, I'm an industrial engineer and I'm a musician and I'm an artist, and I love doing all kinds of things that don't fit my major even a little bit. My life is so much fuller because of it. So knowing that this is a tradition for industrial engineering and this is something we're encouraging, to me, feels like we're encouraging a more holistic lifestyle, which is really cool.”

What does IE mean?

What does industrial engineering mean to you?

The prompt may seem broad. May not even seem particularly inspiring.

At least that’s what Bethany Lengacher initially thought, when she heard about the competition in 2020. Still, as someone who first started taking art lessons as a kindergartner, Lengacher naturally was going to register for the competition.

And, then, the more she thought of what she’d sketch for the initial submission, she realized the depth of the question. How could she draw something that encompassed how she felt about her major and why she chose it?

Every industrial engineer could have a different reason for choosing the discipline.

“One piece of art is not going to accurately describe everything everyone feels about industrial engineering. The fact that the prompt is the same every year makes a lot of sense because you get a body of work that represents every year, and it will add to what IE represents for students,” Lengacher said.

"Markov on the Mind" painting hung inside Grissom Hall
Bethany Lengacher's "Markov on the Mind" painting, which won the 2020 competition. (Photo: Shayan Bawaney)

There aren’t many constraints put on the paintings, as the point is to allow students to express whatever resonates most with them about their major.

Some ideas have shown up multiple times over the years — like Lillian Gilbreth, one of the School’s most prominent figures — but they’re always executed differently, whether it be in style, color schemes or technique.

Lengacher’s painting, “Markov on the Mind,” stemmed from a specific course she was taking at the time. IE 336 is all about stochastic models — modeling random processes into understandable mathematical models using the Markov method. The topic fascinated her, the idea one could take a complex process and understand it in a simple way.

“It really brought out something that I like to call elegance, which is something that IEs do and use a lot in our discipline,” she said. “We have to make systems to be more elegant so that they run more efficiently, that they’re more cost effective. It’s kind of the heart of what industrial engineering is. While I was looking at all of these different models that we were drawing (for class), I was seeing different patterns come out that looked like art. I would get done with my homework and I would look at them and say, ‘Oh my gosh, this looks so cool. It looks like I’ve made a piece of art, even though I’m just drawing a bunch of circles and lines and numbers and things.’ ”

Lengacher’s artistic interpretation: A left-brain, right-brain theory that switched the logical and creative hemispheres, the Markov chain on top of one side expressed by circles and lines with different probability numbers. One side has red tones, the other blue, so it looks almost like fire and water.

“Industrial engineering, in my mind, is the perfect combination of the two (brain functions/hemispheres) because you have to be creative and elegant to be able to properly express the logical side of what you’re working on,” she said. “I love industrial engineering because it is the ultimate meeting of everything that should clash — creativity and out-of-the-box thinking should clash with logical thinking, but it doesn’t. It comes together into this perfect and very necessary role that we fill of making things more efficient and work better. I love it so much.

“I'm really proud of the art that I've made, but also just the fact that it has made me sit and think more about why I'm an industrial engineer, and that's something I want to be able to celebrate.”

Varshini Srinivas also was drawn to the competition because of her artistic leaning. In high school, she actually thought she would do something artistic professionally. That’s not how it ended up, locking into IE, but throughout her Purdue career, she always seized opportunities to get creative.

When she heard about the contest in 2019, she jumped at the chance.

Mauraders Map painting
A Purdue-themed twist on Harry Potter's "Marauder's Map" won the 2019 competition. Varshini Srinivas created the piece. 

“What was very special about this opportunity is it really got my creative juices flowing,” she said. “This seemed like this weird, ideal combination of something that has to do with my major that’s also creative. I’ve always been the girl doodling in my notebooks in class; I paint for fun sometimes; I like to DIY a lot of things. It’s just always been in my nature.”

She’d already been thinking she’d feature the famous “traveling salesman” problem — how to optimize the shortest route between a set of points. A Purdue-themed map with different landmarks from campus could work.

But Srinivas wanted to make it uniquely her.

The idea fell into place on a spring break trip back home to India. On the flight, she noticed all of the Harry Potter movies were available to watch and thought about the “Marauder’s Map” that’s in the series.

The final result: “The Boilers’ Map” that looks like the Marauder’s Map but features Purdue landmarks with connecting lines and footprints like one would see in a traveling salesman problem, mapped in any industrial engineering optimization map. 

Her painting won the 2019 competition.

“It was exciting to know my peers appreciated Harry Potter as much as I did, that they understood the reference, or at least the ones who voted for me did,” said Srinivas, who completed her bachelor’s in 2020 and master’s in 2021. “Seeing the final piece coming out the way it did, it was satisfying because I kind of did it at the last minute. It was a difficult semester for me. I took (IE 33200) that semester, so I was already kind of destroyed. To see my peers supporting it was a nice feeling. To know there are other Potterheads in IE was a nice feeling. Overall, it was kind of the boost I needed in a pretty difficult semester.”

The gallery format of the display in the stairwells shows the contrast of idea, approach and execution over the years.

Colors are wide ranging. Styles are varying. And reason behind them are all different — though not attached to each painting, each artist did provide insight into their thought process for a webpage on IE’s site.

“It is interesting to see how students interpret the prompt in their own individual ways — and that, I think, keeps the spirit and keeps students and alumni connected,” Pearson said. “We've had some really interesting submissions that draw on pop culture that are more abstract, that are even very linear and kind of simplistic, lines and really using like light and shadow and some of these different artistic styles and representations.

“Our alumni come back for the final decision. They love seeing these, and these are alumni from the 60s or the 80s, who are older than the current students, but it still resonates with them. So it’s really cool for me to see how the arts have relevance even in engineering. It draws people together. It elicits emotion and memories and all sorts of different kind of feelings and connections with people.”

Creating a legacy

And that’s part of the point of the competition.

Paintings will continue to be added within Grissom — with plenty of space to accommodate a growing collection of galleries — and each year will be a unique glimpse into different “time capsules,” as Srinivas called it.

Stairwell in Grissom Hall with paintings
Several of the hallways within Grissom Hall have been given splashes of color by displaying winners of Beautify Grissom. (Photo: Shayan Bawaney)

“Part of the student body is forever going to be in the hallway,” Srinivas said. “I think that’s special; I think that’s unique; and that’s awesome.”

In the first couple years, artists were asked to paint years on the canvas. McComb thought it was an important detail, marking the point in time of each creation. Now, plaques are attached to the art work with that information.

“It’s a really interesting way to document how the history evolves over time and to see what the students’ perspectives are,” McComb said.

Though some topics may always pop up during the competition, Brunese is convinced the contest will always stay relevant. Because as a discipline, industrial engineering is always changing.

“The nature of the work that our students do has changed dramatically since the school was founded many years ago and just in the last few years, the types of roles our students do in industry and academia and so forth, wherever they may end up, the perspective is always changing,” Brunese said. “Every student interprets it differently, the experiences they have are different, the opportunities they will have are different. I think that’s a testament to the discipline. It’s not a stagnant thing. Any human-integrated systems that exists out there is an area where industrial engineers can be and do work and make improvements. It’s always changing. That’s one thing that will make sure it’s always a fresh activity.”