The Leonardo Challenge

Eli Whitney Museum

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The first Leonardo Challenge was established under a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts which helped the Museum create a series of Design Arts exercises for children. As a fundraiser for the scholarship fund, the Museum asked adult artists, designers, architects, painters, sculptors etc. to undertake one of the exercises it had adapted for school children from Leonardo’s Notebooks. Amidst the helicopters and submarines, the canal locks, mechanical music machines and the printing press, Leonardo invented the idea of improvisational creativity.

Leonardo demonstrates the origins of invention in the playful application of his imagination. The annual Challenges have engaged over 300 artisans and artists and have produced stunning variations on clothespins, buttons, matches, springs, wooden ice cream spoons, pencils, beaded chain and playing cards.

The 28th Annual Leonardo Challenge

Leonardo's Light

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Leonardo's Light
Food & Drink | Art Auction | Live Music

915 Whitney Avenue

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The 27th Annual Leonardo Challenge

Leonardo: In Flight

Save the Date

Leonardo: In Flight
Food and Drink Outside
Art Auction Inside

Thursday, May 18th 2023 | 5:30-9pm | 915 Whitney Avenue

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The 26th Annual Leonardo Challenge: Re-Imagined

In Alphabetical Order

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In Alphabetical Order

Letters (of the alphabet, or characters and symbols) form language, society, expression, and freedom.

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The 25th Leonardo Challenge

Mask & Metaphor

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Leonardo At Play

The masque carried Leonardo da Vinci to prominence in the court of Ludovicio Sforza in Milan. Leonardo produced extravagant costumed pageants to celebrate the Duke's weddings, coronations, and whims. Public splendor is a compelling mask for power.

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The 24th Leonardo Challenge

Capturing Time

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It's About Time.

What Time Is It?

Press two fingers on your heart. Count the pulses. You are a clock ticking at about 60 beats per minute. You are a clock that times everything. You are the clock that matters.

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The 22nd Leonardo Challenge

Imagination in Focus

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The arc of a raindrop on a leaf magnifies its veins and our understanding of seeing.

Egyptian artisans mimicked the curve of eyes in glass to give their statues uncanny spirit. Assyrians in Nimrud may have used a rock crystal to concentrate the sun’s rays into a spot of fire. In the Middle Ages, the polymath Abas ibn Firnas crafted reading stones of glass. Refined lenses awakened the sciences, explorations and arts of the Renaissance.

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The 23rd Leonardo Challenge

Leonardo in Bloom

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Just Blown Away


Molly Gambardella's dandelion captures the spirit of the 23rd Leonardo Challenge completely. It's cluster of delicate seeds wants to be loosed to launch new growth. Yours is the breath that will give them flight.
Thank you.

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The 21st Leonardo Challenge

Uncharted Imagination

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Not long ago travelers consulted paper maps distributed by service stations gratuitously, but difficult to refold. Today watches, phones and cars themselves provide directions, sometimes with animated updates and commentary voiced in dulcet but skeptical tones. A decade has transformed the ancient arts of cartography radically. Early maps recorded star patterns that marked changing seasons. Now the celestial robots of GPS guide us to lost car keys. Early maps defined the boundaries of unknown territories. Now we wonder if there is any space unmapped. We need a map to track the changing meanings of all these maps.

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The 20th Leonardo Challenge

Knot What You Imagine

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The Knot

A knot is a simple or elaborate twist and interlacing of fibers. The knot's structure makes the fibers into something new: a tool, a weapon, an ornament, a calculation, a message. Snare a rabbit. Net a fish. Lash a sail. Cinch a saddle. Gird your loins. Plait your hair. These ordinary bindings are nodes of civilization. Or a knot can be personal. Touch your navel. It remembers the knot that first defined you as an individual.

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The 19th Leonardo Challenge

Brush With Genius

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Consider the Lady with an Ermine, Leonardo's stunning portrait of Cecelia, the mistress of Ludovice Sforza, the Duke of Milan and Leonardo's patron. The painting brims with movement, with immediacy, and with bold brushwork. Leonardo paints in the new medium of oils.

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The 18th Leonardo Challenge

Enumerated Invention

Fibonacci Spiral

In the late middle ages, a new arithmetic followed the spice trade from India to Italy on Arab ships. It brought place value, simplified calculation, and the digits we recognize as our own. These were the type of numbers Gutenberg needed for his press. These are the numbers that Leonardo learned in his apprenticeship with Verrocchio.

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The 17th Leonardo Challenge

Reflected Creativity


The Mirror
Our earliest ancestor recognized a face reflected in a pool of still water: there began the evolution of our idea of self. Ancient cultures captured reflections in stone, iron, coal, copper, silver, and glass. In mirrors, priests and magicians saw prophecies and vessels of the soul. Mirrors educated artists and scientists. As a child, you noticed your mother's furtive glance at her face in a compact's tiny glass. You suspected this attention was not for you.

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The 16th Leonardo Challenge

Cap & Caprice


A little over a hundred years ago, the tiny crown cap opened a revolution. Its tin-plated disc of thin steel, pleated round its edge, compressed a sliver of cork over the lip of a bottle's deliberately slender neck. Coca Cola escaped the confines of the Drug Store fountain. Beer left the tavern. We christened the machine age of drink.

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The 15th Leonardo Challenge

Unruly Invention


Each of us can remember the first ruler that we carried to school: in the beginning useful for drawing lines, hinting at important reckoning yet to come. You may recall improvising applications for that ruler that were neither straight nor measured. A paradox of creativity: sometimes invention requires a broken rule.

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The 14th Leonardo Challenge

Keys to Creativity

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The Challenge: Find a key. Twist the key or its meaning. Insert or duplicate or cut or connect or color or conceal keys. Assemble new forms. Unlock new meanings. Let the keys start something.

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The 13th Leonardo Challenge

Playing Hands

Leonardo and the printing press were born in the same year. The first transformation of that revolutionary communications technology was, of course, games. Playing cards, made uniform and inexpensive by Gutenberg's press, spoke a universal, popular language.

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The 12th Leonardo Challenge

Rein of Invention

Chain is as ancient as Hepaestus, the artisan god of the forge. It is an essential tool of the blacksmith’s art. With rings and hooks of chain, a blacksmith tethers the world. Leonardo draws chains as he dissects the anatomy of invention.

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The 11th Leonardo Challenge

Remarkable Invention

Mark McCarthy

Just as the printing press spread reading across Renaissance Europe,the pencil spread writing. Wood or metal or paper supported a carbon and clay stylus ever ready to mark, cipher, or draw.

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The 10th Leonardo Challenge

Serving Creativity

Tools extend the powers of the hand. Tools expand the world to be touched. The spoon was, at first, literally, a splint of wood improvised to collect for sipping the broth of boiled beast. Which came first: the soup (a word also derived from the sound of sipping) or the spoon?

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The 9th Leonardo Challenge


Use buttons and laces to construct or adorn. or adorn and construct buttons and laces. Transform, transcribe, transfigure, transpose. Unbutton your imagination. Lace your work with wit, wisdom or wonder.

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The 8th Leonardo Challenge

Leonardo's Cradle

Leonardo reveled in invention…the creations of the human hand that manipulate, manage, magnify and mirror nature. Nature usurped classical geometry as the ruler of Leonardo’s mind. And yet Leonardo connected invention to nature as simply and precisely as the concave of the tee embraces the curve of the sphere.

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The 7th Leonardo Challenge

Turns of Mind

Nature turns wheels with muscle, wind and water in dutiful simplicity. Leonardo's mind reconstructs that movement. He collects and contrives twists and turns to compose an infinite choreography: sometimes a dull march, sometimes a graceful waltz, sometimes a jazzy jitterbug.

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The 6th Leonardo Challenge


Draughts are an ancient diversion. Pharaohs played. Like games evolved in China, India, Turkey and Africa. A book on checkers was printed when books were first printed in Leonardo’s epoch.

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The 5th Leonardo Challenge


Arteries work 1

Leonardo sees through surface. He sees the channels, conduits, and capillaries that structure and animate the flower, the insect, the city the body, the earth. Leonardo sees a universal web of connections.

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The 4th Leonardo Challenge

Leonardo's Wellspring

The Mechanical spring was a metallurgic innovation newly mastered in Leonardo's Renaissance. Leonardo foresaw its influence in clocks , crossbows and flintlocks, in wind-up cars and robots. If a device could have two states at once compressed and spring or stretched and recoiled, is it not emblematic of the universal energy that Leonardo's eye uncovered?

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The 3rd Leonardo Challenge

Unmatched Leonardo


We asked artists to consider a box of wooden kitchen matches. These are at first the simplest and fullest expression of mass production convenience and uniformity. And yet they can ignite the imagination. These anonymous forms offer an infinitely variable armature for the creative mind.

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The 2nd Leonardo Challenge

Platonic Spools

Consider the spool and the cigar box. They are familiar and natural building blocks which give form to the first creations of children. They offer the experienced designer a universal geometry to explore.

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The 1st Leonardo Challenge

Leonardo's Clothespin

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Leonardo da Vinci’s Notebooks define the products and processes of design. Leonardo explores his world with the eyes of a Scientist; he reinvents it with the hands of an Artist. He directs students in architecture and landscape design, in fashion and theatrical design, in product design and graphic design: all of the creative expressions that surround humankind.

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