You’ve seen the phenomenon at OMSI for 40 years, a 10-foot-high, ever-moving mechanical sculpture that lifts and then drops balls through its labyrinth. The gravitram, a name derived from the words “gravity” and “tramway,” is the work of artist, designer and inventor Shab Levy. Built in 1973, the OMSI sculpture is one of many custom-made science exhibits Shab and his team created for museums around the world. The exhibit director at OMSI for 19 years, Shab moved on to found Levy Designs based in Northwest Portland.
“Kinetic art either has moving parts or there is a movement feeling,” says Shab during an inter- view at his home in Multnomah Village. “Either you move and create a feeling or it moves. I’ve always been interested in kinetic art, but I was about 22 when I first saw it live. A traveling exhibit came from France to Israel.”
Shabtay Levy was born in Bulgaria in 1939 and immigrated to Israel with his family at age 10. “Bulgaria was one of only two European countries that objected to the transportation of Jews,” he says, referring to the Holocaust. While Nazis transported and annihilated Jews in the Macedonian and Greek areas of the country, most other Bulgarian Jews survived.
“Bulgarian Jews were cultural but not religious,” Shab says. “My parents and grandparents went to synagogue occasionally, and I was raised secular. During the war, all Jews had to evacuate the big cities. We went to a small town on the Danube. About 95% of Bulgarian Jews immigrated to Israel in 1949 and 1950. I was 10 when we left.”
Shab was working at a small science museum in Tel Aviv when an American visitor from OMSI handed him a business card. Shab came over on a one-year apprenticeship program in 1967. “My boss at OMSI thought that since I was raised in Israel, I knew about agriculture,” he says. “He put me to work designing an exhibit about cows and eggs; I hadn’t the foggiest. Finally, I said, ‘I’d like to do this and this.’ My first exhibit was on math, the second fluid mechanics.” Shab became director of exhibits within three years.
Meanwhile his two children attended Portland Jewish Academy where his ex-wife Shoshanna worked. Shab earned a degree in industrial design at Portland State University, worked full time at OMSI and developed exhibits for museums around the world in his spare time. His second gravitram went to a museum in Oklahoma, another to Lahore, Pakistan. By 1987, Shab felt ready to start his own company.
“Gravitrams were only part of what we did,” says Shab. “I was in business for over 15 years, and we had clients all over. Probably my favorite exhibits were physics oriented – sound, light, electricity – although we designed others like perception. I had a talented staff, a Ph.D. in physics, architects, graphic or industrial designers, and machinists.”
Shab also pursued his other passion, stereoscopic or three-dimensional photography. He and his part- ner, Diane Rulien, and others from the Cascade Stereoscopic Club opened the 3D Center of Art and Photography on Northwest Lovejoy Street in 2003. Today, Shab fills his spacious den with his three- dimensional sculptures and computer paintings along with kinetic art and knickknacks from around the world. He even has a few treasures from his days in Bulgaria.
Still, when Portlanders think of Shab Levy, his iconic gravitram at OMSI comes to mind. “It went up on the floor 40 years ago and has been functioning every day,” Shab says. “It survived the move from the old OMSI by the zoo. The fun was the brainstorming and building the exhibit. I’ve never been bored at my work – ever. I would do it again.”
For more information on Shab Levy Designs, visit gravitram.com.