Margaret Spilker of Cullowhee
Margaret Spilker of Cullowhee gets some practice using a high-tech arm sling manufactured by Western’s department of engineering technology as she takes art lessons from Jean Pittillo.

CULLOWHEE – Margaret Spilker of Cullowhee has seen first-hand how fine art and high tech can sometimes be combined to create a work that inspires.

A quadriplegic since 1977, Spilker uses traditional artistic tools such as pens and watercolors as she expresses herself artistically, creating images inspired by nature. Lately, however, Spilker's talents have been enhanced by the use of a high-tech arm sling manufactured by Western Carolina University's department of engineering technology.

The sling, which connects to Spilker's wheelchair, represents a collaborative effort involving engineering technology students and faculty.

“It was a pleasure to work on a rewarding project to provide improved quality of life for a talented lady,” said Aaron Ball, a Western associate professor who teaches machining and fabrication methods in the university's new Center for Applied Technology.

“The arm sling attaches to Margaret's wheelchair to provide arm support from overhead. Primarily, our concern was assisting Margaret in stabilizing her arm while she is painting, and yet not prevent restriction to forward and rotational motion.”

The project also involved the work of two former Western students, Monty Graham and Steven Nail, and a current student, Chris Rudisil. Graham, a Franklin resident, now works as an engineering technologist in the university department, while Nail, originally from Mocksville, is employed in engineering by Freightliner Corp. in Mount Holly, and Rudisil, a Canton resident, is focusing on computer aided manufacturing as a graduate student in technology.

The arm sling is primarily composed of aluminum and a plastic material called acetal, Graham said. “We chose those materials because they will not rust, are fairly lightweight, and are easy to clean,” he said.

Some of the parts were machined by hand on a manual lathe, and others were cut on a computer-controlled milling machine, Graham said.

“A few of the parts were created with a software package that allows us to draw the parts and then create code from those drawings that can be used to program the milling machine,” he said.

The result, says Spilker, is an apparatus that provides a way for her to draw and paint without holding the pen or brush in her mouth. “It's also an excellent source of exercise for strength and range of motion,” she said.

“Because I have very limited arm motion, every muscle that works is so important, and the sling provides a wider variety of options for me during my art lessons. These gentlemen have had a very positive influence on my life.”

Spilker has taken art lessons through the N.C. Independent Living Program for 10 years, and her current teacher is Jean Pittillo, an artist and craftsperson from Cullowhee. Spilker graduated from Cullowhee High School and St. Andrews Presbyterian College before earning a master's degree in information and library sciences at the University of South Carolina .

Now 43, Spilker says she enjoyed expressing herself through art in high school, but after a car accident left her confined to a wheelchair, she went a decade without it. Since then, she has enjoyed working in various media, such as acrylics, watercolors, ceramics, pen and ink, and charcoal. Some of her works she gives away, while others are displayed in the home she shares with her parents, Otto and Peggy Spilker.

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Last modified: Monday, February 23, 2004
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