Boeing Frontiers
November 2002 
Volume 01, Issue 07 
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Chalk one up to precision

A Rocketdyne engineer puts her patience, dedication and talent to use at work and also through her art


What do you get when you cross an engineer who inhabits a world of precision, calculation and rigorous analysis with an artist who thrives on emotion, whimsy and imagination?

To the employees at Boeing Rocketdyne in Canoga Park, Calif., the answer is obvious. You get someone unique: friend and coworker, rocket scientist and madonnara extraordinaire—you get Dawn Morrison Wagner.

Fourteen years ago, an Italian club in the Santa Barbara, Calif., area bought a square of pavement at California’s first Madonnari, or street-painting, festival. Street painting is a European tradition dating back to as early as the 16th century.

Frequenters of these festivals refer to the artists of the pavement who participate in them as “madonnari” (a female artist is a madonnara and a male artist a madonnaro) because they typically reproduced images of the Madonna.

Wagner’s mother, a native of Rome, and active club participant, asked her 13-year-old daughter if she wanted to try “street painting” the square with chalk.

“That was all it took,” Wagner recalled. “I got hooked.”

Street painting isn’t the only thing, however, that has “hooked” her.

“I love art, but I always knew I’d be an engineer,” she explained. “I can’t get enough of the math and the science behind how things work.”

Wagner came to Rocketdyne five years ago as a Mechanical Engineering graduate from California Polytechnic, San Luis Obispo. After four years of work on space structures for the International Space Station program, she’s currently a design engineer working for the RS-68 rocket engine production team. RS-68 is a large liquid-fueled rocket engine that will power the Delta IV Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle that Boeing is developing and has scheduled to make its first flight this month.

“I still get excited when I see the space station fly overhead, and I’m really looking forward to the first launch of the RS-68 engine,” Wagner noted.

As Wagner points out, art and engineering aren’t necessarily that different.

“Both require a lot of patience and dedication; there are a lot of parallels,” she said.

“Still, I’d be surprised if I wasn’t one of the only engineers with an art minor in the history of Cal Poly. But don’t quote me on that!”

Wagner uses the same innovation, vision and ingenuity in both her art and her career.

“It’s great that I’m a designer (at Rocketdyne); that way I get to work both sides of my brain,” she said.“Similarly, I think you see the engineer in me with how precisely I draw. … I want my work to be perfect. Until that face is just right, I can’t do anything else.”

After participating in more than 30 street-painting festivals throughout California and Texas over the last 14 years, Wagner’s images speak for themselves. She uses a grid to create her replications, which range from 7x7 feet to as big as 20x20.

First, she takes a reproduction of an original work of art. DaVinci, Raphael and Michelangelo are a few of her favorites. She then places a transparent grid over the reproduction.

Next, she sketches a faint grid, using the same number of squares as the pavement area to be chalked. By matching each square during the initial outlining of the image, she’s able to create a large-scale chalk reproduction of the original.

“I generally focus on pieces from the Italian Renaissance, both because that’s where the art of street painting originated and also to honor my Italian ancestry,” Wagner explained. “The Madonnas are my favorites—I love drawing their faces.”

Wagner participates in at least one show a month during the April to October season, and each work of art takes 16 to 20 hours to complete. “It can be very exhausting; the sun is hot!”

To make things more interesting, after all this hard work, it’s not rare for a street cleaner to come and wipe away the image within a few hours of its creation.

“It’s not that discouraging,” she said. “In a way, the whole impermanence is part of the beauty. I’m always okay with it, just as long as I’m not physically watching the street cleaners. We always take lots of pictures beforehand.”

When asked which is harder, street painting or rocket science, she smiles and laughs. “The balance helps me enjoy the challenges in both.”


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