'Fusion' exhibit a collision of art, physics

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Nancy Holleran is among the artists showing their work at the R. Blitzer Gallery in The Fusion of Art and Physics. 

A new exhibit reveals what happens when artists visit labs to hear physicists explain their work.

Conceived by UC Santa Cruz physics lecturer Stephanie Bailey, The Fusion of Art and Physics features work created by 17 pairs of artists and physics graduate students. The exhibit opened March 1 at the R. Blitzer Gallery in Santa Cruz and is meant to help people to access and engage with physics through art and to think about the role physics plays in the world.

Last fall, Bailey organized another science-art collaboration with the show Motors Surround Us, a piece of art created from simple electric motors made by introductory physics students.

Bryson Bost, an artist who creates intricate patterns using acrylics and pigment inks, was linked up with physics doctoral student Johnny Davenport. The young scientist showed Bost the instruments he uses to explore really thin crystals at the lab and how it is possible to see what the crystals look like on an atomic scale.

“You could actually see the spaces in between atoms,” said Bost. “It was like I can’t believe I’m seeing a pocket dimension. It’s almost science fiction.”

Bost was honored to get a chance to see a world he has no experience with and enthralled by Davenport’s explanation of his work. “It’s so advanced you feel like you’re talking to a messenger of some god,” Bost said. “You feel like you’re getting in touch with some strange divine formula.”

For his part, Davenport said he enjoyed the opportunity to translate his ideas into ordinary language and not just get mired in technical jargon. Davenport thinks scientists spend too much time in their own world.

“A lot of times we fall back on technical language to be able to communicate complicated concepts,” he said. “The hardest thing to do is to distill it down to something presentable through a different medium or a different audience. Science isn’t just intended to benefit scientists.”

After that first dialogue, Bost went back to his studio and began working on the creation for the show. He spent about 40 hours creating a piece filled with intricate patterns created with acrylics and pigment ink that were inspired by the atomic-level images he saw. Physics doctoral student Benjamin Lehmann, 25, enjoyed getting to try out his artistic side with his partnership with quilt artist Ann Baldwin May

“This is a completely new experience for me,” he said. “I have no experience with art and I never thought of myself as an artistic person.”

He liked experimenting with fabric a bit even though his ideas didn’t make it into the final piece. “I had fun playing around a bit,” he said. Lehmann began by talking to May about his work studying what the universe is made of. Eighty percent of the universe is made of something invisible called dark matter and scientists have no idea what it is. “What I do all day is think about what it could be or not be and test the idea.”

One thing he examines is the way particle physics (the very small) is related to cosmology (the very large). He showed her both images taken from observational astronomy with telescopes and images from particle colliders. May decided to create art pieces that reflected the crossover between those two areas.

Lehmann soon saw that art was an effective way to communicate. By looking at May’s art, he was able to see what she understood from his explanations about his scientific work.

May liked hearing about Lehmann’s investigations and was amazed to learn that when subatomic particles smash together, they break apart in predictable patterns and colors. She created a total of four quilts inspired by the images Lehmann showed her.

At first, she tried to copy the images she saw exactly with her fabrics. But then she decided to give herself permission to change it so it would work with her artistic sensibility.

“It was definitely worth it,” she said about the experience. “What it allowed me to do is my do my art in a different way that was successful.”

Among the goals of the Fusion show is to enable people to access and engage with physics through art and to think about the role physics plays in the world. The collaboration was intended to foster stronger communication skills among physicists in speaking to non-professionals.

The exhibition is curated by participating artist Tauna Coulson. An opening reception is March 1 from 5–9pm and will feature live music, hors d’oeuvres and discussion. A panel discussion of participating artists and physicists is March 16 from noon to 2 p.m. R. Blitzer Gallery is at 2801 Mission St., Santa Cruz. For more information, call 831–458–1217 or visit rblitzergallery.com.