Scientists as Artists

Anna Schier

In recent weeks, Chicago Art Magazine has begun to examine intersections between the worlds of art and science.  While previous posts have tackled critical issues such as how science-based cultural institutions incorporate visual art (http://chicagoartmagazine.com/2010/07/science-museum-roundup/)  in a way that remains relevant to their mission, and whether it’s possible for a museum to be equal parts science lesson and art show (http://chicagoartmagazine.com/2010/07/international-museum-of-surgical-science/).  Today, we delve deeper into the world of science-inspired art by spending some quality time with several of Chicago’s own scientists-turned-artists.

Daniel Nolan

The scientist and the artist: In the eyes of most, these two iconic figures could not be more oppositional. They represent rationality vs. impulse, logic vs. fantasy, method vs. creation.

Yet the paradox of the scientist-artist lives, and, as it turns out, is less than paradoxical.

Astronomer Dr. Christy Tremonti notes, “Science and art are both ways of exploring ideas. New ideas are the currency of both.”

Chicago is home to many scientist-artists, and when asked to discuss the relationship between art and science, the answer was fairly universal.

“They have a lot in common,” says geneticist/bioartist Hunter Cole. “People associate art with creativity and whimsy and people associate science with facts and structure, but you actually need to be very creative as a scientist.”

Former nuclear engineer and newly established resin-painter Daniel Nolan agrees.

“Both scientists and artists have to come up with an original idea,” Nolan states. “The difference for me is how it gets applied.”

Nolan turns to personal experience to explain how similar these seemingly contradictory creative processes actually are.

“When I was in grad school I used to dream in math,” he explains. “I would actually solve the problems I was working on in grad school in my sleep. I do the same thing with my painting. When I’m in that dream state images will start coming to me, very similar to the way I would be dreaming in math years ago.”

Daniel Nolan

How did Nolan go from life as a rising corporate star (over the course of his short career in corporate science he was promoted from nuclear engineer to technical consultant to management consultant) to spending his days painting in a studio in Pilsen?

Two words: midlife crisis.

Says Nolan, “I was approaching forty. Although I enjoyed what I was doing, I enjoyed painting more. There was a sense of bliss. It was a truly personal thing. I was in a life position where I could make this change. I could take a chance.”

However, Nolan hasn’t completely abandoned his ties to the scientific world. His creative process incorporates chemicals in a manner which evokes a chemist’s laboratory, mixing liquid resin (essentially plastic in its early state) with coloring agents in a process which requires technical speed and precision. When working with a fresh batch of resin, Nolan is typically allotted only 20 minutes to work with his media of choice before it begins to harden and becomes difficult to apply. Nolan experiments with chemical reactions, layering and color in his work, creating pieces that are as much products of science as they are of art.

Hunter Cole

Cole, too, produces art that directly incorporates scientific methods and media. Although she works with more traditional materials, such as oil, acrylic and installation, Cole, a professor at Loyola University, incorporates less conventional artistic methods as well. Perhaps the most scientific and unexpected of these is her work with bioluminescent bacteria. When working with the unusual media, Cole harnesses light created by a chemical reaction in a living cell to produce original artwork.

Cole grows the bacteria in a liquid culture, and then uses the culture as her paint, applying it to a gelatinous augur in a petri dish, as if the augur were a canvas. When applied, the culture is clear, but over a 24 hour period it slowly begins to glow, becoming more visible. For the two weeks following the culture’s application, as the bacteria grows and dies, the drawing changes.

Says Cole of this process, “[In] the initial drawing, the bacteria will grow in the lines that you painted. But as it dies off, it’s not completely predictable. The drawing changes and the bacteria become collaborators in the artistic process.”

Cole captures this bizarre collaboration through time-lapse photography, charting the artistic alterations made by the bacteria. She has even created music based on the proteins in the bacteria by assigning notes to protein sequences.

Adam Reed Tucker

As a university professor, Cole has found a way to integrate art into her role as an educator. Eight years ago, she developed a course which allowed her to share her love of bioart with her students. Entitled Biology Through Art, the class explores complex scientific topics including cell structure, genetics and anatomy, but also incorporates the work of bioartists and several bioart projects. Of her student’s work, Cole states, “I want it to be interpretive and creative.”

Sculptor Adam Reed Tucker is another scientist-artist who uses media to unite two seemingly opposite schools of thought. Tucker is a trained architect, although his work does not conform to conventional architectural expectations. His ideas are not realized in bricks or concrete. Rather, Tucker constructs his creations out of a less conventional medium: the LEGO.

A former traditional architect, who refers to architecture as a “complete marriage between art and science,” Tucker left his firm to pursue a career in LEGO sculpture. His whimsical works recreate iconic structures in America and around the world at a smaller scale. Tucker has built (or, rather, rebuilt) everything from the Burj Dubai Tower to the Empire State Building, and says of his work, “All I’m trying to do is capture the essence of the structure in its purest sculptural form.” When asked about his unusual choice of construction material, Tucker had this to say, “[the LEGO] offsets the intimidating nature of architecture.” By building these timeless structures in lighthearted medium, Tucker has transformed the scientific into the artistic.

The scientist-artist is not a myth, but, rather, a revolutionary creative force. Two methods of thought, which, at face value, are at odds, can be the catalyst for innovative work. Perhaps Dr. Tremonti says it best, when she says, “I believe we are all scientists at some level. It’s a fundamental part of being human. Anyone performing an experiment – whether it be with paint, nanotubes or different varieties of grass seed, is a scientist in my view.”