Interview of Charles A. Csuri by Robert Butche

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Charles “Chuck” Csuri, the third son of a hardworking, but impoverished, coal mining family in depression-era West Virginia, achieved national, and even international, stature as a visionary innovator in computer graphics. His parents emigrated from Hungary, and Hungarian was spoken in the home. Neither parent graduated from high school. After his father lost a leg in a mining accident the family relocated to Cleveland, Ohio, where there was a large and supportive Hungarian community. In time his father retooled as a cobbler. Csuri’s brother Frank, eleven years older, took a strong, almost fatherly, interest in his young brother, and encouraged him to pursue his interest in drawing. Frank arranged for Chuck to take Saturday morning art classes at the Cleveland Museum of Art. At West Technical High School in Cleveland, Csuri, since there was no expectation in the family that he would go to college, set aside his interest in drawing and art, and took “practical” mechanical and technical courses. He also, despite his slender build, took up football, and by his senior year improved so much that he was invited to attend Ohio State University. Thus, “almost by accident” Csuri embarked on a lifetime association with Ohio State, first as a student-athlete, and later as a professor. His father was very supportive as his youngest son embarked on an unexpected career. All three sons played football, but the game was something of a mystery to Csuri’s father, who saw his very first football game in spacious Ohio Stadium. Two of Csuri’s teammates were fellow Hungarians, Leslie Horvath and Jean Feccady. After earning his Master’s Degree, Csuri was offered a faculty position at Ohio State. One of his colleague’s was Roy Lichtenstein, a man with whom he could share a mutual interest in ideas and concepts. Lichtenstein, a New York Jew, and a son of privilege, and the coalminer’s son from West Virginia, became fast friends. Lichtenstein was an excellent teacher, very cooperative with people, and a strong supporter of Chairman Hoyt Sherman. Sherman advocated a basic program in drawing and painting, and said that a student should be taught certain principles, certain concepts about what is a good drawing or what is a good painting, and how to approach the problem of making a drawing or painting. Others on the faculty considered this approach too rigid. Despite his support of the Chairman, Lichtenstein was denied tenure, a “hurtful surprise.” Many of his colleagues, including Csuri, as well as Csuri’s wife, Lee, were shocked by this decision, and believed that their talented friend had been treated unfairly by Ohio State. Csuri was awarded tenure while barely 30 years old, a remarkable achievement, and turned to broadening his outlook on art and its intersection with technology. One of Csuri’s great strengths was his ability to see things that other people didn’t see, and to appraise opportunities others have overlooked. Often Csuri felt that the arts were an “afterthought,” and not considered a central part of the university’s mission. The primary focus has been on medicine, biology, engineering, and agriculture. Yet it was Csuri in fine arts, who started the digital revolution at Ohio State. In 1960 a professor of civil engineering, Jack Mitton, first introduced Csuri to the computer. Gradually with the help of philosopher friends like Elasao Veevas and Murray Kreeger, and especially his wife, Lee, intellectual curiosity led to questions, questions led to dialogues, and dialogues led to research proposals. However, his colleagues in the Fine Arts department, including Hoyt Sherman, did not share his interests. Csuri transferred to the Department of Art Education. He founded the Computer Graphics Research Group (CGRG), an interdisciplinary faculty consortium. Some within the university, notably Ned Moulton, and people in physics and mathematics offered important assistance. Csuri, an art professor without a Ph.D. won an unprecedented grant from the National Science Foundation. Yet, others at the University were so negative that increasingly he felt estranged. As Csuri recalls, its’ bureaucracy did nothing to help him get the NSF grant, and was totally indifferent to it once it was awarded. Of course the leaders of Ohio State were not indifferent to the nine million dollars Csuri raised for the university from his grants and fundraising, and once he became famous the university was quick to use his name. Csuri’s greatest disappointment with Ohio State came from its “inability to see what could take place” in the field of technology. Ned Moulton did link Csuri together with Robert Cranston Knuss, and they created Cranston-Csuri. President Ed Jennings contributed four millions dollars to help fund the Ohio Super-Computer Center. The Advanced Computing Center for Arts and Design (ACCAD) was founded. Nevertheless, funding for staff, equipment, and demonstration projects dwindled, and opportunities were lost. Despite assertions to the contrary, university officials by and large never saw the computer revolution coming, particularly for an interdisciplinary field such as computer graphics. Much of what Csuri created has gone beyond Ohio to places like New York or Hollywood. Another aggravation was a decision, made in the mid-70’s, to bring in an Eminent Scholar in Csuri’s field when Csuri himself was just beginning to emerge as a national figure. The scholar chosen was a European man largely unknown in this country, and completely unknown to Csuri. When he proved unsuccessful, the university appointed another outsider in his place. Csuri became Director for the Advanced Computing Center for the Arts and Design. Csuri has continued well into his 80’s to visualize new opportunities for the university. For him new ideas, situations, and challenges are not feared but welcomed. In July, 2002, years after his retirement in 1990, Csuri met with President Brit Kirwin to seek support for a Visualization Center. This would enable faculty and students better to keep pace with rapid changes in the fields of technology. He has met with coach Jim Tressel, to advance ideas for using technology to improve athletics, and has offered new insights into supporting scientific endeavors. The Ohio State University has accorded him special considerations. Thirteen years after retirement the university has continued to provide Csuri with an office, graduate assistance support, and computer equipment. Perhaps no other emeritus professor has received such post-retirement support for so long. In addition, Ohio State provides Professor Csuri a budget of $10,000 every year so that he could continue to be professionally active. In thinking about the future, Csuri argues that professionals in various fields need to learn more about emerging technologies, networking, and maintaining a dialogue with experts in related fields. This needs to be an ongoing process. It should apply to K-12 as well as higher education. He offers projections as to how he sees changes in the oncoming world of technology. Certainly many current techniques and practices will become obsolete in the not-too-distant future. Unfortunately because of limited support Ohio State does not seem to be well positioned to take full advantage of future changes in technology. He wondered if thirty or fifty years from now computer graphics would be used as much in movies as it is today, or if movies would be all computer graphics. He takes satisfaction, however, that many of his former students have achieved prominence in that field, in Hollywood and elsewhere. Finally he cautioned that “it takes something more than technology to be an artist.” Csuri also appreciated the experience of recording much of his professional life on the five DVD’s put together at Ohio State on his long, productive, and creative career at the university. (These have now all been completed.)


Frank Csuri: supportive older brother (pp. 4, 7-10, 12) -- Hoyt Sherman: Chairman of the Art Department (pp. 18, 21, 23-24, 26-28, 34) -- Leslie Horvath: All American football player, teammate and friend of Csuri (p. 14) -- Jean Feccady: teammate of Csuri (pp. 14-15) -- Roy Lichtenstein, artist and sculptor (pp. 17-31, 36) -- Bob King: Professor of Art Education (p. 25) -- James Hopkins: Chairman of the Art Department (p. 26) -- Paul Klohr: (pp. 32-33) -- Robert Cranston Knuss: collaborator with Csuri (p. 41) -- Edward “Ned” Moulton: (pp. 37, 41) -- Donald Perry Cottrell: Dean, College of Education (p. 29) -- Jack Mitton: civil engineer who introduced Csuri to the computer (p. 34) -- Elasao Veevas: philosopher (p. 34) -- Murray Kreeger: philosopher (pp. 34-35) -- Lee Csuri: wife of Chuck (pp. 17-18, 20) -- Edward Jennings: President of OSU (pp. 41, 48) -- Brit Kirwin: President of OSU (pp. 47-48, 71) -- Brad Moore: Vice President for Research (p. 47) -- Jim Tressell: football coach (pp. 49-50) -- Donald Harris: Dean of the College of the Arts (pp. 51-52) -- Richard Patterson: volunteer of the DVD project (p. 77)


computer graphics