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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 24, Issue 1

Artists Play With Light and Shadows to Trick the Eye

Trompe l'oeil illusions challenge your perception



MURAL: DEREK BESANT; PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF TOMAS ROSENFELD

“I always tell the truth. Even when I lie.”

Al Pacino in Scarface, 1983

In the studio of sculptor Tom Eckert, life appears to imitate art. A new snow shovel—Eckert cannot get much use of it in Tempe, Ariz.—hangs on the back wall, covered by a sheer piece of fabric. We had seen photographs of Eckert's art before our visit, so we suspect that the translucent curtain is carved out of wood. But the trick is on us. Eckert reveals that the shovel is wood as well, as is the “plastic” hook holding it and the two not really galvanized metal nails securing the curtain to the wall. Instead a metal fastener hidden in the back supports the entire piece, and the shovel's filmy silhouette is spray-painted onto the solid wood block that is the faux silk curtain. Elsewhere in the studio, we mistake wood sculptures for balled-up used work rags, and vice versa. Is the rag abandoned on the workbench a model for a sculpture, or are we looking at the carving instead? Only after touching it can we decide.

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