Duane Palyka

My name is Duane Palyka and I'm president and principal developer of Pal Katoonz™. I was born and raised in a poor interracial working class neighborhood-- a suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennslvania, where most of the men worked in the local steel mill. Everything was gray; you couldn't see four feet in front of your face. The sky was glowing bright both day and night from the flames of the blast furnaces. As a 5-year-old boy, my mother informed me that if Dad didn't rush to work today, he would be "fired". I immediately pictured him being thrown into one of those blast furnaces. In grade school, I remember singing "America the Beautiful" with its "purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain". This compared poorly with the local garbage dump with broken pianos and discarded ice boxes where I played. I wanted out of there. I rarely saw my father since he was busy trying to get us a better life-- working in the steel mill by day and building houses by night. My alcoholic uncle became my best friend until he died a year later from cirrhosis of the liver. Fortunately, in the Industrial Age, my hard-working father could give us some upward mobility. Fast forward ... I worked hard in school and managed to get into a good local college-- Carnegie-Mellon University-- as a math major. I didn't know what a mathematician did. All I knew was that we had an inspiring math teacher, math came easy to me, and I didn't want to work in a steel mill.

I. Bachelor of Math and Bachelor of Painting and Sculpture at Carnegie-Mellon University (1960's)

  Entering CMU in the sixties as an engineering and science student, we all took the same classes in our freshman year. I was in a sea of really smart students-- most with better education-- in large auditoriums trying to learn Calculus, Physics and Chemistry together. I couldn't find my identity in all this. I wanted to be called "Duane", not "Mr. Palyka". In my junior year, I realized that my future consisted of becoming an actuary in an insurance company, which was not inspiring to me.

When I flunked Advanced Calculus in my junior year, I knew math wasn't my calling and tried to figure out what to do. I started going to figure drawing sessions in the Fine Arts building and found out about a 3-year full-tuition scholarship given by the Ford Foundation to Industrial Designers. So, my next move was to become a freshman again in Drawing and Painting while still getting my math degree and apply for that scholarship after my second freshman year. I went to Moscovitz (head of the math department) and told him I wanted to switch to Fine Arts and still get my math degree. He gave me twenty reasons why I couldn't. Then I went to Dean Teare and told him. He said "Moscovitz said what!!! Wait till I crack the whip!" I was astonished that he would say that to a student. He immediately phoned Moscovitz, talked for a few minutes, and said "You got it!" All I had to do was get a petition signed that stated the classes I needed to complete my degree and I could do them while being in another college-- the College of Fine Arts. When I started drawing and painting as a freshman again, I got into surrealism-- was fascinated with the images that came from my subconscious and thought "I wonder if I could write a computer program that would entertain me as much as my subconscious does?"

So, I started writing computer programs that created art. Somehow my work came to the attention of Dr. Herb Simon, CMU's Nobel Laureate. I think it happened when the computer center tried to hold back my work because it didn't fit in with the engineering applications that normally came out of their printer. Herb got the flow going again and I started exhibiting the pieces in London and establishing a small reputation for myself. At the end of the freshman year, I entered my freshman artwork to win the scholarship and won it-- but Ford cancelled the scholarship that year. I figured that since my father and I would have to pay for the additional three years ourselves, I should go into something I really liked-- so I became a painting major. I really enjoyed myself during those last three years at CMU. I worked on drawing, painting and making computer art pieces under the wing of Herb Simon. Herb even got me money over the summer so I could work full time on my computer art.

One day, recruiters came to CMU from MIT Lincoln Labs expecting to interview doctorate candidates and I showed up at the interview with my two degrees nearly in hand. They invited me up to MIT Lincoln Labs for a job interview. When I got there, I met Oliver Selfridge who promptly told me that there was no position for me there and that he didn't even like my artwork. However, they had more money in their travel funds than they had for jobs and they thought I was interesting enough to fly up there to talk with. He mentioned that a guy named Tom Stockham was leaving them and going to Utah to do waveform processing under an ARPA contract and that I might just tag along with him.

With a nice recommendation from Herb, that's where I ended up for nine years. Tom, my new boss, was getting paid directly from the pentagon so that kept me out of the Viet Nam war. Keeping out of Nam was a constant struggle when I was an art student. I even got accepted as a special student at MIT with Georgy Kepes, but I felt that Nam would have gotten me if I went there, so I declined the offer.

II. Research Associate and Computer Graphics Programmer at University of Utah(1970's).

An amazing think tank that produced brilliant computer scientists.

III. MFA in Art from University of Utah (1970)

Although immersed in a high-tech environment, I really wanted to teach drawing and painting in an art department. In 1970 when I received my MFA, I asked the head of an art department what were my chances of getting an available position. He said that because of affirmative action, I couldn't get in because I was neither African American nor a woman. I quickly learned that my computer programming background was necessary for my survival.

IV. Developed a CAD system for a small company in Utah (1975).

Worked well for the civil engineers who needed the tools.

V. Computer Scientist and Animation Designer at the New York Institute of Technology Computer Graphics Lab (1980's)

A wonderful R&D playpen that spoiled us for the rigors of commercial programming jobs.

VI. Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan School of Art (Early 1990's)

Tense environment where I tried to integrate computer graphics into a traditional art program possessing lots of resistance.

VII. Technical Director at Industrial Light and Magic

Although I worked on the movies "Casper" and "The Mask" (the Jim Carey version), I discovered that my heart is really in R&D and not production. ILM is quite a factory.

VIII. Adobe Systems and Apple Computer (mid-1990's)

Created drawings of people on the train on my way to work and used them to test the development of Photoshop. (see my portfolio section)

At Apple: Wonderful assortment of artists and musicians working on a wide variety of projects-- until Steve Jobs came back and threw us all out.

IX. Associate Professor in the School of Film and Animation at Rochester Institute of Technology (late-1990's to late-2000's)

My life flew by in a whiz! I got an MFA in Art at University of Utah while I worked on the ARPA project to develop computer graphics under David Evans and Ivan Sutherland. Then I went to Long Island, NY, to work for Alexander Schure, who wanted to become the new Walt Disney. A bunch of guys split from Alex to work for George Lucas and formed PIXAR, but I didn't join them. Instead I hung out at NYIT in Old Westbury, L.I., for eleven years enjoying myself working with old animators who had worked on Popeyes and Betty Boop in the past. I also started teaching "programming for artists" at NYIT. Then I headed off to University of Michigan, where I taught computers to artists for four years, went out to the bay area to work for George Lucas at Industrial Light and Magic, worked for Adobe and Apple Computer, got fired by Steve Jobs, and landed an Associate Professor position teaching computer animation at the School of Film and Animation at Rochester Institute of Technology. After ten years of teaching at RIT, I retired from there in 2007.

Teaching, for me, has been brutal-- especially in the 1980's and 1990's. In art departments, painters and sculptors saw my technical emphasis on art as an unwelcome intrusion into their territory. This was especially true at the University of Michigan School of Art, where the dean was expelled over these issues. Since the dean was responsible for me being there, I soon followed her out the door. The controlling faculty committee actually told me to stop teaching programming to artists. In all my years of teaching, I could not find a place to teach the principles to which I adhere. At RIT, I had to survive by learning and teaching Maya-- a 3D modeling and animating package used in the film industry. I tried to stay one step ahead of the students. I didn't always make it. At least RIT allowed me to teach programming to artists. However, they weren't interested in any of my software development.

Now I formed a little one-man company called Pal Katoonz and I'm back to writing software to make art and animation. My work employs the principles I started at CMU-- using mathematics and computers to develop ideas with no goal in sight, and seeing where the ideas take me. With the computer, I'm like a child in a playpen again. PalkArt™ has emerged this way. With the computer as a canvas, I make programming "brushstrokes". I look at the results produced by this digital canvas and see what the "brushstrokes" suggest to do next. The software suggests where it wants to go. I work more like nature does than as an engineer does. I develop modules of code that get modified and reused for each function that emerges. My programs evolve like cells do in the human body. The same cell structure, with slight modification, is used both in the brain and the kidney.

I found that I'm not suited for the commercial programming environment, so throughout my career I avoided it as much as I could. Contrary to my playpen philosophy, commercial programming positions require you accomplish pre-set goals and attempts to convert you into a machine that programs machines.