24 June 2011

Portrait of an Artist as a Young Scientist: A Guest Post

While drafting a recent post about a very cool senior thesis by a young artist at MIAD, I discussed the question of art and science (rather than art verses science) with my wife, Kira. She is an architect by training and will be starting a graduate program in architecture at the University of Washington in Seattle this fall. She had some really interesting comments about the similar creative conceptual rigor demanded by both art and science but there was no way I could work all of this into my previous post. Instead, I asked her to write her own guest post. 

So, without further ado, please give it up for my thoughtful, talented, and much better half….

I am a sucker for science. Nothing excites me more than trying to comprehend something as massive as the universe. I am easily entranced by DNA diagrams. I love reading about species long extinct. Call it geeky or nerdy... I’m fine with that.

The thing is, I am definitely not a scientist. I am a designer.

Somewhere between partial differential equations and linear algebra, my aptitude for the math required to devote serious study to science reached a plateau. Fortunately, I had learned enough to capably continue with my design studies in architecture. Nevertheless, I still peruse the periodic table, indulge in learning about string theory, and feast on new photos of the Large Hadron Collider.

Art and science are often portrayed as the north and south poles of academia—distant extremes. But, as someone who enjoys both of these areas, I can tell you that this portrayal is a shallow interpretation of two vast and complex disciplines.

Kaycie D’s work showcases how complimentary art and science can be. Elements, her rendering of the Periodic Table in the form of animated characters, shows not only an artistic stamina (you try maintaining an aesthetic consistency through 88 iterations!), but also a unique way to interact with the Table itself. In nature, the elements all have distinct traits and properties or, rather, personalities. Kaycie has taken those complex characteristics and rendered them visible, a personification resulting not only in visually stunning art but an accessible communication tool as well.

Elements also shows us how similar art and science can be. Their similarity is not found in mere adjacency, but in the artist’s and scientist’s shared experience of creative and intellectual exploration.

When you can’t necessarily “see” (in a full-scale, literal sense) what you are studying or creating, you have to use a finely tuned imagination. You have to be able to visualize the invisible; make connections and see relationships based on theory as well as observation and experience. Sure, the physicists at CERN can watch data pop up on their computers proving that particle collisions are occurring . But they can’t actually see the collision itself. Similarly, chemists cannot see the molecular groupings that occur when glucose is formed; but molecular modeling kits help students visualize these microscopic combinations. Engineers of all stripes must assess a problem, then imagine and design a viable solution well before fabrication can begin. And math – the mother of all invisible subjects (infinity, anyone?) – is ripe with countless tools like graphs, symbols, equations and numbers themselves that aid with visualization.

Art and design function in much the same way—the artist or designer has to hold a concept in his or her mind while working through various hypotheses and relationships. A visual artist must consider how to communicate with their viewer through composition, color, image, and text in order to create a physical expression of a feeling, experience, or idea. (For an interesting discussion of this topic, check this article from 1963 by David Ecker -- available on JSTOR.) As an architect, I think about how space, shapes, light, and material affect the way people feel, interact with one another, and relate to the built environment. Artists and designers consider countless possibilities simultaneously, mentally bookmarking each with writing, sketching, and modeling. The various possibilities are ultimately compared and evaluated in search of the best solution.

Scientists, artists, designers—we all share a keen ability to imagine and visualize the unknown in order to learn, create, and communicate. The mediums and contexts in which we work can differ greatly, but all of these fields share some common traits. As a result, they provide opportunities for new and exciting perspectives that can challenge and inspire students, researchers, teachers, and practitioners to tackle issues that, until now, we have been unable to see.

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