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Imagination, Hypothesis-Testing, and “Ah Ha!” Moments Play a Role in Both Art and Science, Artist Says

Dan Pearce—an engineer, architect, general contractor, and artist—is enjoying a circuitous career. He spent nearly a decade as an aerospace engineer at NASA in Houston and then he moved with his wife as she pursued an academic career at the University of Virginia.

Not finding many aerospace engineering opportunities in his new hometown of Charlottesville, Pearce became involved in other projects, including building a solar-powered house for his family and creating unusual sculptures.

Pearce will show his bronze and wood sculptures in a new exhibit at the AAAS Gallery starting Thursday 13 May, with a public reception from 5 to 7 p.m. The gallery is on the first floor of the AAAS building at 12th and H Streets, N.W., in Washington, D.C.

The exhibit, “ComplexUs: The Nexus of Science and Art,” will run through 10 September. Regular hours for the gallery are Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Dan Pearce’s sculpture using a 3-d printer. View a larger version of this image.| Photo courtesy of and © Dan Pearce

“ComplexUs” is the name of the group of artists and scientists from Richmond, Virginia, including Pearce, who are displaying their pieces in the exhibit. In one of his works, “Walking Man continuous,” Pearce used a printer capable of making three-dimensional objects with successive layers of material. He created a 3.5-inch-high sculpture of what appears to be an animation of a man walking.

“The fact that you can pick up the object and see it as motion, I think expands your notion of what space-time is,” he said of his 3.5-inch sculpture.

“In this exhibit, scientists and engineers demonstrate how their lives and interests have taken them in different creative directions,” said Virginia Stern, director of the AAAS Art of Science and Technology program.

Stern created the program in 1985 as a way to showcase art about science, art by scientists, or art that employs a new or original technology or technique. “Careers in science and technology often don’t take an obvious or traditional path,” she said.

Pearce, in his artist’s statement, describes his work as an “attempt to traverse between the worlds of technology and art.” This description aligns well with the AAAS Art of Science and Technology program, Stern said, and it captures how the works in the new exhibit represent an intersection between science, technology and art. Shirley Koller, AAAS curator, arranged the exhibit.

Chemist Susan Van der Eb Greene will display her sculptures in the AAAS exhibit. “My mind is very three-dimensional—I love the three-dimensional aspects of molecules, that’s why I went into chemistry,” said Greene, who retired in 2001 from her job as a research chemist in Richmond. “I am fascinated by how the three dimensions of a molecule are involved in its function.”

Sue Greene’s sculpted table. View a larger version of this image. | Photo courtesy of and © Sue Greene.

Greene’s sculptures reflect topology, an area of mathematics that studies shapes. She carved a moebius band—like the infinity symbol—out of laminated wood, and she created a twisty manifold out of mahogany. One of her pieces is a glass-topped table with spiral legs. She used cherry veneers glued together to form the curving legs with “a logarithmic spiral of a constantly widening circle,” she said.

Richmond artist Sara Clark also finds inspiration in topology. “Topology is a part of mathematics which is really a visual language. The shapes are very pliable,” said Clark, who teaches drawing and painting at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) and at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Studio School, both in Richmond.

Sara Clark’s painting of topological shapes. View a larger version of this image. | Photo courtesy of and © Sara Clark

In her oil paintings, she uses shapes as characters and has developed some favorites: rippled or straight ribbons; knots and spheres; and the Boy’s surface, a three-dimensional geometrical shape derived by mathematician Werner Boy.

In her painting “Duet,” a yellowy-green Boy’s surface appears like a three-petaled, three-dimensional flower. Next to it, Clark painted a ruffled, rust-red ribbon and set both shapes against a backdrop with mustard yellow and deep turquoise.

“In the world of art and science, imagination plays such a major role in how things work,” Clark said. Art and science are two ways to look at the world, and their paths can cross, Clark said. In both fields, she explained, “you have a hypothesis, but sometimes you don’t know how things are going to turn out. There are ‘ah ha’ moments.”

And in between the invigorating ‘ah ha’ moments, scientists and artists alike can feel monotony. Artist Chuck Henry attests to this. He spent five years optimizing the brightness, color, and size of spheres using a computer program that simulates three-dimensional environments.

Chuck Henry’s computer graphic print. View a larger version of this image. | Photo courtesy of and © Chuck Henry

Henry will show his geometry-inspired, large-scale computer graphic prints at the AAAS exhibit. Peering at two of his stereo prints, measuring 54 inches wide and 42 inches high, gives the impression of a three-dimensional space. “My work gives me and hopefully the observer a glimpse into the world beyond the physical world,” he said.

He took five years to learn the software and experiment, which resulted in computer graphic prints that seem like colored bubbles or kaleidoscope images. “The first step is placing the 40-some spheres in space, and there’s an x-y-z coordinate for each one and a diameter for each one,” said Henry, a retired professor from Virginia Commonwealth University’s sculpture department.

“It’s very, very tedious. It’s just nerve-blasting,” he said. After situating the spheres, he used the computer program to experiment with 90 different light sources illuminating the spheres. “I discovered that you have to place these light sources at the points of contact between the spheres. Otherwise, you don’t see the spheres,” Henry said.

Tarynn M. Witten—a physicist—came up with the name of the group, which has been meeting for about four years at VCU. Witten is a professor in the Center for the Study of Biological Complexity at the university.

Tarynn M. Witten’s sculpture of birds in flight. View a larger version of this image. | Photo courtesy of and © Tarynn M. Witten.

“We all have a science background or training or interest. And we all have a unifying interest in art and science,” said Witten, who also will display pieces in the AAAS exhibit. “And it became very clear that we were each complex artists, and that our works have emerging and sometimes unpredictable properties,” she said.

For instance, one of her paintings is inspired by microarrays, a technique used to visualize the activity of genes and proteins. Witten described these molecular and cellular activities as “emergent phenomena,” in that they represent what the whole organism is doing.

In a sculpture, she takes another look at an emergent phenomenon: the flight of birds. In a series of origami paper foldings, birds emerge from flat pieces of paper and then disappear again. “You have this idea of emergence, evolution, adaptation and impermanence,” Witten said.


The AAAS Gallery is on the first floor of the association’s headquarters at 1200 New York Avenue, NW, in Washington, D.C., at the intersection of 12th and H streets. The gallery is open and free to the public from Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.