Perspectives: Newsletter of the College of Arts & Sciences

Science Inspires Art in New Course

Students visit the UW's Kirsten Wind Tunnel.
Students visited the UW's Kirsten Wind Tunnel
for inspiration. Photo by Rebecca Cummins.

It sounds like a campus tour for science buffs: a visit to the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ Kirsten Wind Tunnel, a presentation at the UW’s Center for Environmental Visualization, and lectures by astronomy and oceanography faculty. But these ventures into the scientific realm are instead part of an unusual studio course in the School of Art (SoA).

The course, “Black Holes, Grey Matter, and White Cubes: Visualizing Science,” encourages students to look to science as inspiration for art. It’s something that course instructor Rebecca Cummins, associate professor of art, has done in her own work for years.

“A lot of my work is influenced by science, especially simple optical principles and the history of science and technology,” says Cummins, who specializes in photomedia and optical sculpture. “I’m intrigued by technology that allows us to see what we wouldn’t be able to see otherwise.”

Some students in Cummins’s class already share her interest in science. ¬†Natasha Lozanoff, a double major in photomedia and biology, says she sees art as a way to communicate environmental issues to a larger, non-science audience. Other students are exploring the connections for the first time.

Art students visit the Kirsten Wind Tunnel.
Students peek at a propellor during their visit to the UW's
Kirsten Wind Tunnel. Photo by Rebecca Cummins.

“A lot of my friends study in different areas of ‘hard science’ and I have always been interested in images they share with me,” says Elizabeth Abrahamson, a double major in interdisciplinary visual arts and community, environment, and planning. “I thought this class would be a good avenue for further exploration.”

The class combines lectures, readings, and lab visits, along with studio assignments and critiques of student work. Visiting lecturers have ranged from UW faculty—astronomy professor Woody Sullivan, who has collaborated with Cummins on sundials, and art professor Mark Zirpel—to other internationally known artists. Jane Prophet, a professor at London's Goldsmith College, spoke to the class via Skype about her interdisciplinary practice involving science, technology, and landscape. Joe Davis, who has worked with scientists at Harvard and MIT, met with the class while serving as a UW visiting artist. “He was already scheduled to have a show at the Jake [SoA’s Jacob Lawrence Gallery], so that was really great timing,” says Cummins. 

Visits to campus science labs have sparked students’ imaginations. The Kirsten Wind Tunnel was particularly memorable for many in the class, who bombarded the presenters with questions. “What’s been unexpected is the sheer volume of ideas that our trips and speakers have inspired,” says interdisciplinary visual arts major Llyra de la Mere. “I don’t think I’ll have time to follow through on all of them.”

Students visit a sound sculpture at NOAA, Sandpoint.
At NOAA-Sandpoint, students visited Sound Garden, a sound
sculpture of wind-activated organ pipes by artist Doug Hollis.
Photo by Rebecca Cummins.

By mid-quarter, students had developed project proposals that ranged from a spiral installation, using recovered plastics collected from the ocean, to a monument to cancer survivors that incorporates images of healthy and damaged lungs. De la Mere, inspired by Joe Davis’s use of electrical components in his work, has in mind a final project that involves “making my own custom circuit board, using special acid to etch the copper-clad board.” Other projects reference bio-mimicry, wind dynamics, weather patterns, retinal after-images, DNA sequencing, ocean acidification, electrical sparks on film, and viral outbreak simulation.

Cummins, teaching this class for the first time, has been encouraged to see students finding inspiration in science as she has for many years.

“I hope that students not only find a passion in an area of science that they hadn’t considered, but that they are able to offer a unique aesthetic or intellectual response to it," says Cummins. "Artists can offer examples of involvement with science that emphasize the poetic, ambiguous, or metaphoric, whereas scientists are often seeking more specific, quantifiable outcomes.¬† In the natural sciences, the constantly emerging scientific discoveries, instruments, and visualizations are so compelling. I can’t imagine not being inspired by them.”

Return to Table of Contents, March 2011 issue


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March 2011 issue

Table of Contents
UW Planetarium Goes Digital
Partnering for Science
Embracing the Arctic
Finding Answers in Nyssa
Science Inspires Art in New Course
Women Studies' New Name
The Plant Detective
Stardust Reaches NExT Rendezvous
Sloan Fellowships for A&S Faculty
Other Awards, Honors, & Professorships


A&S Perspectives

Nancy Joseph

A&S Dean's Office
50 Communications Building
Box 353765
University of Washington
Seattle, WA 98195-3765

(206) 543-5340 phone
(206) 543-5462 fax