Shab Levy: The Man behind OMSI's Mesmerizing Gravitram

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.

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'Shab Levy: The Man behind OMSI's Mesmerizing Gravitram' has 1 comment

  1. June 24, 2020 @ 11:07 pm Matt Miller

    Levy’s Gravitram is sort of exhibit that pulls people in and not just engages them, but gets them engaged with each other as they enjoy watching and wondering over it. The result is that it connects them emotionally long-term to an institution like OMSI, and to the learning they experience there. When I started at OMSI in 1991, the Gravitram was al ready an institution, and the longest-lasting exhibit there. I started to get an idea of the impact of that as I fielded questions from parents asking where the Focault Pendulum ( which had been removed because the Fire department had been concerned about the chimney effect it might have in the case of the fire, as it operated through a fairly narrow opening between 2 floors) and the giant walkthru heart (which had been neglegently stored outside for a time and eventually discarded with water damage) where. Their reaction ranged from disappointed to irate, as they’d brought their kids to experience those exhibits they way they had as a child.
    When we moved across the river the next year, I was glad to see the Gravitram in a prominent place in the lobby, guaranteeing that we’d have that iconic exhibit to connect families to OMSI through the generation. Other long-term exhibits, such as the mineral and fossil rooms, were put in storage by the President, as she wanted to emphasize OMSI as an interactive science center and not a static natural history museum. A long series of parents looking to bring their kids to see the minerals of their youth didn’t change her mind.
    Years later, I was talking with one of the people in marketing, and she was lamenting that the press event for our latest traveling exhibit ( I can’t remember the exact topic, but I think it tied into a current movie, and had all the bells and whistles that normally accompany the summer blockbuster exhibit brought into our changing exhibit hall) had only drawn a crew from one TV station and a print reporter. A short time after that, while hanging out at the Gravitram, (yes, even jaded staff like to stare at it working), I glanced at the name plate, and noticed that the upcoming month would be its 25 year anniversary. I mentioned this to the marketing person next time I saw her, noted that it was the most asked about attraction on the exhibit floor, and said I thought a press event or a party was called for. She did end up planning one, and it turned out that EVERY TV station, EVERY newspaper in town showed up. A little exhibit with a 4 x 4 footprint out-drew a blockbuster exhibit that filled a 10,000 square foot hall.

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