All that glitters

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Artist Shane Mecklenburger wasn't out to make any editorial comments when he took on his latest project.

All the same, he knows some people will find it poetic that he has turned gunpowder into a diamond with the help of University of North Texas chemistry professor Justin Youngblood.

"It's not a didactic, political thing," said Mecklenburger, a former new media art professor in the UNT College of Visual Arts and Design. "But there is a sword-to-plowshare effect here. What we were performing here was a way of neutralizing gunpowder. So I can't pretend that there isn't that effect. It's a substance that's been used for centuries - not just to hunt food, but to kill people. We're taking gunpowder and turning it into a diamond. People are going to see that." Superman script, gunpowder, pizza and, yes, even a dead armadillo." alt="Staff illustration/DMN file photo"> Staff illustration/DMN file photo Two UNT professors have schemed to create diamonds out of a Superman script, gunpowder, pizza and, yes, even a dead armadillo. View larger More photos Photo store

The idea to turn cheap, disposable material into diamonds came to Mecklenburger when he was visiting Chicago and a friend told him about a company called LifeGem.

In a nutshell: The company takes the hair or ashes of a dead loved one and turns it into a diamond. Instead of keeping the cremated remains of a loved one in an urn or spreading them in favorite places, surviving loved ones can have the ashes turned into a diamond - a colored diamond, even - and set in a piece of jewelry.

"The diamonds they make are molecularly identical to diamonds that come out of a mine in Africa or Asia," Mecklenburger said. "When I found out about LifeGem, it got me thinking about objects, and how we give value to them. I really wanted to find out how valuable someone would think a diamond is if it comes from an object that doesn't have much value, either on the market or in general. The whole point of this, the question I'm asking is: 'What is the value of these diamonds?'"

He'll find out when he eventually auctions them off. It costs Mecklenburger $3,000 to create a modest diamond - a third of a carat. UNT's art department gave the professor a grant to make the first two diamonds. In addition to gunpowder, Mecklenburger is turning an armadillo into a diamond.

He said he knows the project might be a head-scratcher. When people think of art, they think of painting, drawing, sculpture and photography. They might think of installation. But diamonds?

Mecklenburger got the idea to use gunpowder partly because of the video installations and sculptures he has made that are inspired by "shooter games," video games in which the players win by racking up kills - thanks to an arsenal of pixilated guns - in order to reach a goal or save something precious. As a man raised in a Jewish home, Mecklenburger said, he found it interesting that he would pick up a crushed armadillo in Palestine, Texas, shroud it in a white cloth, then present it to a pet cremation service in a Styrofoam cooler.

"It was a total coincidence, and I plan to run the video of my picking up the armadillo in the exhibit," he said.

Mecklenburger is a painter and a sculptor, but as a new media professor, he played a role in the university's initiative to study the link between technology and art. He pitched the project for a research cluster with a long name: the Initiative for Advanced Research in Technology and the Arts.

"The initiative bridges art and engineering, biotechnology and nanotechnology," he said. "Artists and scientists go through the similar processes. There are more similarities than scientists and artists like to admit. The way scientists work is very close to the way artists work. You start an art project with an idea of how it will work and what the outcome will be and then you test it. Scientists do the same thing. Sometimes, the outcome you predicted doesn't happen, and sometimes it does."

He sent an e-mail to the university's chemistry department, and it was Youngblood who answered and volunteered to help turn the materials into something LifeGem could use.

Now that the gunpowder and the armadillo are under way, Mecklenburger plans to turn a bit of the 1983 film Superman III into a diamond. At first, he wanted a copy of the actual film - the scenes where Superman impresses Lana Lane by crushing dirt and making a diamond, and where Superman battles it out with Clark Kent.

"I originally wanted to crush the celluloid film of those scenes and turn it into a diamond," Mecklenburger said, but he couldn't get his hands on the film. So he improvised.

Instead of using film, the artist plans to use the paper from a 34-page edit he made to get enough material to make a diamond.

"When I do the exhibit, I'd like to show the edit with the diamond," he said.

The professor is looking for a North Texas company to auction the diamonds. Winning bidders would get the stone and its certification papers.

"It will be really interesting to me to see what a buyer would pay for them, and if they'd pay more than it cost to make it," he said.

This isn't the first time Mecklenburger has studied questions of market value. When the Greater Denton Arts Council debuted its annual Ultra Extra Arts Mix, Mecklenburger had several laptop computers set up so that patrons could bid on abstract ideas, including "identity," "culture" and "love" on eBay. Patrons put in bids, and the top bidders got their ideal. Love was bought for $76. Another bidder paid $21 for "the future."

Mecklenburger said he has "a list a mile long of diamonds I want to make."

At the top of the list: pizza; a piece of the rapidly vanishing African rain forest; a piece of plastic from the now-famous Pacific trash vortex.

"There's almost no end to what you could make into a diamond, as long as you can get to the carbon," he said. 

LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877. Her e-mail address is

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