Marble sculptures, model trains and chamomile tea

Diverse hobbies serve as secondary passions for some Auburn research faculty

For many among Auburn University’s research faculty, it’s not all lab work and no play. Quite the contrary, as some enjoy unique and very diverse hobbies that reflect some exceptional talents and skills even beyond those displayed in their research endeavors.

Part 1:

Michael Zabala is an assistant professor of mechanical engineering and director of the Auburn University Biomechanical Engineering Laboratory (AUBIE) in the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering. His research is in biomechanics and he is focused on human performance and injury prevention. His lab --The AUBE Lab -- aims to identify, study and help solve complex biomechanical problems in fields such as ACL injury prevention, exoskeleton technology, prosthetics and orthotics, and many others. Zabala also is a marble sculptor who says he draws his influence from the works of Michelangelo as well as his teaching and research in the field of biomechanics. 

Auburn Research wanted to learn more about some of the interesting extracurricular hobbies enjoyed by some faculty. This Q&A segment is the result of chatting with Zabala about his marble sculpting hobby:

How long have you been involved in your hobby?
I picked up this hobby last summer during the peak of the (COVID-19) pandemic

What about your hobby interested you and how did you get started?
I teach a study-abroad class –Biomechanics & Engineering in the Arts –that is offered to Auburn engineering students. That class is taught in Florence, Italy. It (marble sculpting) is in line with the course Mechanics of Materials, primarily in the context of marble. Through teaching that course, I became quite fascinated with marble sculpting. Sylacauga, Alabama, which is very near to here, is a marble quarry center. I approached a company about getting some small quantities of marble, and I was able to get some samples to work with. The quarry manager there is from Italy and very knowledgeable. The first thing that I carved was a 3D representation of the shape of Italy. Human form was a topic of Renaissance marble sculpture. I have also carved a sculpture of my wife’s likeness. I used a 3D scanner on my phone to start. Then I made a clay model. I was using many engineering skills to carve. That piece took 67 days to complete, working about 2 hours per day. I used manual tools only

Does your hobby require raw materials?
Marble has a minimum weight that it has to be to be carved with a hammer and chisel. If it is too light, the piece will move when struck. I have to have a piece of marble small enough that I can handle it, but that also is heavy enough to sculpt. Marble is heavy, weighing about 160 lbs./cubic foot. I have found the proper size for my work to be about 100 pounds.

Do you consider your hobby to be an expensive activity in terms of monetary investment and time?
I can’t accurately say, because I started with samples. I am able to spend about three hours each week now sculpting and [was] one of the invited sculptors carving this year at the Sylacauga Marble Festival. Still, I will be using free samples of my raw marble.

Does your hobby provide any benefit to others, or is this strictly an outlet for your own enjoyment/benefit/creativity?
There is something cathartic about swinging a hammer and that is relaxing. Right now, my sculpting gives me a great deal of personal enjoyment. It also has given me much more appreciation of the art of marble sculpting and a deeper reward and enjoyment from my engineering profession and the biomechanics course that I teach. I [carved] at this year’s Marble Festival in Sylacauga, so possibly, others [got to see] and appreciate my effort also.

Do you have future expansion plans for your hobby?
I presently am using space in my garage for my sculpting. It is not the most optimum arrangement, because marble sculpting creates a great deal of dust. I hope to someday have a separate shed space that I can use for my sculpting.

--Interview by Mitch Emmons

Continue to Part 2


Michael Zabala