The GRASP Lab at The School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the Weitzman School of Design will collaborate on an art residency program that will bring together faculty and students to explore the use of robotic technologies in addressing contemporary social, cultural, and environmental challenges.

Three artists, designers, engineers or creatives from any discipline will spend four weeks at the  GRASP Lab at PERCH, during which each will develop a creative project with resources offered by PERCH and the Department of Fine Arts and Design.

The residents will receive mentorship from Penn faculty, use the fabrication facilities at PERCH, and interact with students across the campus through lectures and workshops. The outcome of each residency will culminate in a group exhibition and a digital form of dissemination (i.e., website,  and possible subsequent publication) which will allow them to share the results within the broader community. 

Our residency focuses on developing an artwork using robotic technologies. While robotics, here, is broadly defined, we are looking for creatives who would explore the use of robotic technologies in addressing contemporary social, cultural, and environmental challenges. These could be any type of physical system (kinetic or static) that can exhibit autonomous behavior. 

Meet the Artists

Sam Hensley is an animatronic sculptor and storyteller from Kentucky. Using reclaimed fabrics and electronics, she builds empathetic creatures from what some regard as trash. Each has a little world to its own, and a whole personality like any person. Their strange movements grant them an uncanny life. Their traits are at once familiar and strange, not quite matching to any single human or animal. 

Hensley first began producing animated sculpture while getting her BFA at the University of Kentucky. The creatures have since joined her for an apprenticeship at Bread and Puppet theater, residencies at the Worm Farm Institute and Farwell House, as well as several galleries throughout the United States. The creatures have a small but robust online following through Patreon and social media as well, where the audience finds their lovable otherness comforting.

Nikkita Staggs is an artist, researcher, and product designer from Nashville, TN. She graduated from Tennessee State University with a Bachelor’s degree in Communications with a concentration in theatre. While in college she built props and set pieces for a local haunted attraction. She learned to mix silicone molds, resins and plaster, and she also wired small LED lights to be fitted into animatronics. This sparked Staggs’ interest in art and technology, and after graduation she began taking classes in physics, calculus, 3D design and graphics. Her plan was to incorporate her learnings into theatrical design and special effects, but instead she began working as a professional actress for the stage. Staggs has performed onstage with The Nashville Children’s Theatre, Street Theatre, Pipeline Collective, Birmingham Children’s Theatre, and toured with the Tennessee Theatre Company. She has worked production management for Nashville Shakespeare Festival, Nashville Repertory Theatre, Destiny Theatre Experience, and is still waiting for her callback from Studio Tenn. Between performances she works as an educator, teaching theatre and visual arts to children grades k-12.  Staggs has exhibited her artwork across Tennessee, Kentucky and New York. Her extensive scientific research bleeds into her artwork, and Staggs adds technical elements to her designs, creating innovative pieces that combine art, science and imagination.

Kathleen McDermott is an interdisciplinary artist and designer with a background in installation, prop-making and sculpture, currently based in Brooklyn, NY. She combines her knowledge of fabrication with open source hardware to build a language of absurdity that merges new media, design, performance, and video. She is interested in technologies that are not productive, robots badly suited to absurd purposes and electronic creations beyond her control.

McDermott received a BFA from Cornell University, MFA in Creative Media from City University of Hong Kong and Ph.D. in Electronic Arts from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She is currently an Industry Assistant Professor of Integrated Digital Media at NYU Tandon. Her work has been exhibited internationally, including at the Museum of Art and Design in New York, The Tides Institute and Museum of Art in Maine, the Wende Museum in LA, and Art Electronica in Linz, Austria; and has been featured in publications such as The Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, Fast Company, and Dezeen. In addition to her artistic practice, she is an advocate for accessible technology education who actively seeks opportunities to give workshops, collaborate with community partners, and shares tutorials for working with DIY electronics at



Experiments in Robotic Gestures

Experiments in Robotic Gestures

Samantha Hensley
Nikkita Staggs
Kathleen McDermott

Runs / November 21 –  December 18, 2022

Monday, November 21, 6:00-8:00 p.m.

University City Arts League
4226 Spruce St
Philadelphia, PA 19104
(215) 382-7811

Gallery Hours:
Monday – Friday, 9am – 6pm

This exhibition presents the work of three artists – Samantha Hensley, Nikkita Staggs, and Kathleen McDermott — and the culmination of their residencies at the GRASP (General Robotics Automation, Sensing and Perception) Lab at PERCH in 2022. With a month spent performing multidisciplinary research and experimentation alongside engineers and scientists in robotics, artists were able to enhance their skills while overcoming new technical challenges.  Through investigations into the definition of labor, the relationship of machines with biology, to assembling discarded parts into new fantastical creatures with varying degrees of sentience, these artists examine the possibilities that can exist when art intersects with robotics research.

Humans have created a multitude of automated and responsive machines that have become deeply integrated in our daily lives. Over time these robotic beings have become expressions of humanity in themselves, with traces of physical, intellectual and emotional capabilities that reflects their creators. Experiments in Robotic Gestures explores the social implications of robotics on work, culture and the environment.

Robotics Art Residency

The Robotics Art Residency was awarded a 2020 Collaborative Provosts Interdisciplinary Grant from the Sachs Program for Arts Innovation and is sponsored by the GRASP Lab, Kod*lab and The Weitzman School of Design.

The General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception (GRASP) Laboratory is an interdisciplinary academic and research center within the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. Founded in 1979, the GRASP Lab is a premier robotics incubator that fosters collaboration between students, research staff and faculty focusing on fundamental research in vision, perception, control systems, automation, and machine learning. 

Diedra Krieger, Program Manager of the Robotics Art Residency, collaborated with Professor Koditschek and his lab to set up technical mentors for each of the artists. Each artist was paired with a PhD mentor: Samantha Hensley was mentored by Shane Rozen-Levy; Nikkita Staggs was mentored by Wei-Hsi Chen; and Kathleen McDermott was mentored by both PhD Student Diego Caporale and Research Assistant and recent MS Graduate Ethan Musser. Angela McQuillan mentored curation of the exhibition, from meeting with the artists to laying out the exhibition. The Advisory Committee members for the residency were Simon Kim, Cynthia Sung, Angela McQuillan, Orkan Telhan and Diedra Krieger. Laia Mogas-Soldevila replaced Orkan Telhan during his leave of absence. Laia’s student, Victor Li provided poster and digital design for the exhibition’s promotional materials.

University City Arts League

Our contemporary art center champions intergenerational learning with a wide array of visual and performing arts programs, classes, workshops and residencies. We are committed to our relationships with surrounding schools, community centers, individuals and our neighbors. Historically dedicated to cultivating and sustaining new talent by way of offering consistent paid opportunities, professional development and exhibiting space to the broader arts community. The Arts League functions as an amplifier for creative voices of all backgrounds, providing the space for exploration, growth and joy.

Our primary goals are:

To provide a welcoming space for people of all backgrounds to experience the arts.

To encourage and support the development of the arts

To bring the arts to West Philadelphia communities through partnerships and educational outreach.

‍We pursue these goals through an exciting array of classes for children and adults, critically-acclaimed gallery exhibits highlighting local and emerging artists and outreach to our local community. Our programs are guided by an overarching commitment to these founding values:

Welcoming Community – We believe that a person’s socioeconomic status or identity should not be an obstacle in pursuing or enjoying the arts.

‍Development of the Arts – We believe in the importance of the arts to enrich individual lives, to improve the quality of life in a community; therefore serving as an important contributor in the community.

Partnerships and Educational Outreach – We believe that the arts can be a great common denominator in uniting diverse communities to explore shared artistic passion. A commitment to education through the arts is a critical component of our mission.

The University City Arts League is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization.

Sam Hensley: The Creatures
(video credit: Brandon Daniel)
Nikki Staggs: Articulated Wing Movement
(video credit: Brandon Daniel)
Nikkita Staggs: Linear Actuator Flower Movement
(video credit: Brandon Daniel)
Kat McDermott: Movement Studies
(video credit: Brandon Daniel)

Student Engagement Platform

Each artist presented a workshop as part of student engagement. The workshops were hosted by the Pennovation Center, supported by the GRASP lab, and developed in collaboration with Orkan Telhan and Laia Mogas-Soldevila.

Spring 2022: Robotics Art Residency: Sam Hensley, GRASP at PERCH and Weitzman School of Design, “Creature Hour: A Comic Reading and Animatronic Artist Talk”

Spring 2022: Robotics Art Residency: Nikkita Staggs, GRASP at PERCH and Weitzman School of Design, “Nature’s Artwork”

Summer 2022: Robotics Art Residency: Kathleen McDermott, GRASP at PERCH and Weitzman School of Design, “Absurdist Electronics: An artist talk and hands-on workshop for considering stranger robotic futures”


Please view the recording from our information webinar on Feb 3, 2021. 5PM (EST)

Advisory Committee

Simon Kim

Cynthia Sung

Angela McQuillan

Orkan Telhan

Diedra Krieger