For those of us who are neither physicists nor artists, it’s easy to think that there is simply no Venn-diagram overlap between physics and art. But a new show in Santa Cruz called Fusion of Art and Physics aims to remind us that there are ways to build bridges between the two.
Fusion opens at the R. Blitzer Gallery on March 1 and features the results of 17 collaborations between visual artists and physicists. A couple of weeks after the show’s opening reception, both types of participants will share what they learned from each other in a panel discussion.
The show is the brainchild of UC Santa Cruz physicist Stephanie Bailey, who has attempted to blend lessons from the humanities into her teaching of physics. Bailey’s idea was to pair up a roster of Santa Cruz County artists with grad students and faculty in the physics department at UCSC. Like Jane Austen’s Emma, Bailey played matchmaker, looking for complementary interests between artists and physicists. Her own pairing put her with mosaic artist Beth Purcell. Together, Bailey and Purcell built mosaics on musical instruments to illustrate standing waves, the vibrational waveform often created in music.
“I don’t consider myself an artistic person at all,” says Bailey. “But I still very much welcomed working with an artist.”
Bailey’s sales pitch to her fellow physicists was audacious. Art, she told them, isn’t a distraction from science—it enhances it.
“I really believe that working with an artist can enrich the work of a physicist, lead them to think about their problems in new and different ways, and even create a few a-ha moments,” she says.
Santa Cruz sculptor Brad Burkhart didn’t need convincing. Burkhart’s partner on the physics side was Hendrik Ohldag, a physicist from the Stanford Synchotron Radiation Laboratory, where he studies magnetism. Burkhart entered the partnership already inspired by the landmark 1991 book Art and Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time and Light by San Francisco surgeon Leonard Shlain.
“I’ve always been interested in the overlap between the arts and the sciences,” says Burkhart. “It’s [Shlain’s] premise that art leads science by 50 years or so. Artists come up with a visual framework that is later discovered and proven by scientists.”
Inspired by the Gates of Paradise at the Baptistry of Florence, Burkhart turned his artistic attention to creating small bas-relief panels from high-fired clay that are similar to what he saw in Florence. Burkhart visited his scientist partner Ohldag in the physicist’s lab, and Ohldag returned the favor by visiting Burkhart during Open Studios. Eventually, Burkhart created a series of his relief panels guided by feedback and comments from Ohldag.
“I’m going to have a description of how we collaborated, and I’m going to have Hendrick’s comments on the four sculptures as well,” says Burkhart.
In the blog that has documented the collaborations over the past several months, glass artist Randie Silverstein says that her collaboration with physics grad student Alex McDaniel led to “an enormous breakthrough in my work, representing my first real attempt in the 10 years I’ve been doing glass art to truly explore the material further and to conceive of and manipulate it in ways I hadn’t before.”
For Bailey, the non-artist who found herself organizing an art show, Fusion is part of a mission to bring the concepts of physics to a wider public. “Art is a much more friendly and inviting way to attract people than physics,” she says. Of the work she created alongside mosaic artist Beth Purcell, she says that the artwork is more than a few pieces of aesthetic pleasure. “I consider them extraordinary teaching tools, something I can bring into the classroom to convey an important concept in physics.”
‘Fusion of Art and Physics’ runs through March. Opening reception is Friday, March 1, 5-9 p.m. Artist and physicist panel discussion on Saturday, March 16, noon-2 p.m. R. Blitzer Gallery, 2801 Mission St. Extension, Santa Cruz. slbailey109.wixsite.com/fusion/blog.
Update: Feb. 20, 2019 — This article previously misstated the curator of the ‘Fusion of Art and Physics show. The curator is artist Tauna Coulson.