Portrait of Spot the Robot Descending a Staircase

Bay Area artist Agnieszka Pilat started her career as a classical painter and illustrator, spending her days secluded in a studio painting portraits. Originally from Poland, she struggled to break into the competitive San Francisco art scene: Galleries weren’t interested in her work and she felt isolated, until a local art collector approached her with a proposition. He wasn’t interested in the ballerinas she often painted, but liked her expressive painting style. He renovated buildings by day, and often kept old artifacts he picked up from these sites in his office. He invited Pilat to come and paint him something from his collection of misfit objects. That’s when she met her first mechanical subject: a “beautiful, vintage” red fire bell.

That experience sent her artistic career in an entirely new direction. Suddenly, galleries were interested in her work, and she started to make some money.

“In a sense painting a machine really connected me more to people,” Pilat says.

Her proclivity for old machines later took her to a residency on board the USS Hornet, a World War II aircraft carrier in Alameda, California. There, she painted a series of portraits of the ship’s mechanical elements, including the exhaust pipe from a Sikorsky helicopter and an airplane engine that she wrapped in Rosie the Riveter-style ribbons.

“These were real souls, these machines,” Pilat remembers.

She started seeking out opportunities at more Bay Area tech companies: Wrightspeed Powertrains, Autodesk, and Waymo. At Waymo, Pilat spent months attempting to paint the self-driving car’s LIDAR component, only to give up in frustration. As a portrait painter, she looked for history, personality, texture: attributes she struggled to find in Waymo’s compact rooftop dome.

“It started coming out really hostile,” she said. “The way I think about new technologies, they’re like teenagers. As a classical painter, your job is really to capture the essence of the sitter, not the superficial. These machines, they had no soul.”

It felt like a bitter personal failure, she says, but Pilat continued searching for an opportunity to bring newer technologies to the canvas.

spot in the studio
Courtesy of Agnieszka Pilat

She’d seen videos of Spot, Boston Dynamics’ robotic dog of viral Youtube fame, and longed to meet it, perhaps even draw it. A friend in the industry made an introduction on her behalf, and Boston Dynamics invited her to their 180,000 sq ft facility in Waltham, Massachusetts for a visit. Her original intent was to go and “do one little sketch,” but that sketch turned into a year of sketches and dozens of encounters with some of the world’s most advanced robots.

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