The Art of Science: Radical Elements

Grace Harbin Wever, Iridium - My Darkness to Light II, 2013, Mixed Media
Grace Harbin Wever, Iridium – My Darkness to Light II, 2013, Mixed Media

Soft materials meet hard science in Radical Elements, an exhibition at the National Academy of Sciences featuring 40 contemporary art quilts, each inspired by a different element from the periodic table. The works in the show, organized by Studio Art Quilt Associates, explore the elements in many ways, ranging from their industrial uses to personal memories associated with them. For example, Barbara Schulman’s piece, A Pepto Bismuth Story (below), started with the “beautiful crystalline structure” and iridescent colors of the element, which reminded the artist of her mother’s hankies and lace, so she incorporated them into the design along with bismuth’s best-known consumer product, Pepto-Bismol.

Grace Harbin Wever’s Iridium – My Darkness to Light II (above), takes a more strictly scientific idea, although she expresses it in a highly artistic, indirect way. The artist, a former cell biologist, was intrigued when she learned that iridium microelectrodes had been successfully implanted into the human brain as part of studies in vision and perception. A range of materials, including holographic fabric and copper wire, surround the central eye image, nodding to the juxtaposition of the natural and the man-made that characterizes recent advances in the field of vision.

Indeed, very few of the quilts on display stick to the traditional materials of fabric, thread and batting. Materials used range from duct tape and aluminum foil to keyboard keys and dining utensils. Curator Jill Rumoshosky Werner notes, “In a relatively short period of time, the field of art quilting has undergone a fundamental change. The primary focus has shifted from decorating the surface of a quilted wall hanging to a much broader acceptance of ideas, styles, and materials.”

Radical Elements is on exhibit at the NAS Building in Washington, DC, through October 19th.  Many of the quilts can be seen online here.

Barbara Schulman, A Pepto Bismuth Story, 2013, Mixed Media
Barbara Schulman, A Pepto Bismuth Story, 2013, Mixed Media

The Art of Science: Turning Pollution into Pigment

John Sabraw, Chroma S1 12, 2013, Mixed media on aluminum composite panel
John Sabraw, Chroma S1 12, 2013, Mixed media on aluminum composite panel

Need proof that you can make art out of almost anything? Artist John Sabraw creates beautiful paintings using the byproducts of acid mine drainage. Sabraw, an artist and professor at Ohio University, works together with OU chemists and engineers to turn the toxic runoff from abandoned mines into pigments, which he then makes into paints and uses to create his artwork.

Ohio has miles of abandoned coal mines filled with metal dust. The mines eventually fill with water, which becomes acidic as the oxygen in it reacts with sulfide minerals in the rock, and picks up high concentrations of iron and aluminum. This water then spills out into streams, polluting them and killing wildlife.

An environmental engineering professor at OU, Guy Riefler, worked with some students to develop a novel approach to this problem – to take this toxic runoff and turn it into paint. This is not as crazy as it sounds – many commercial red and yellow paints are made from ferric oxyhydroxides, one of the major components of the polluted water. Riefler and his students worked on processing and refining the runoff into pigment (there’s a video here that goes through the main steps). Then they approached Sabraw, who had experience in making paints from scratch, to be a product tester.

The rest is not so much history as, well, science and art. Sabraw created a range of both oil and water-based paints from the runoff and now uses them to make all of his paintings, which have been featured in numerous gallery shows. You can see his work in an upcoming show at Chicago’s McCormick Gallery from March 6- April 25, 2015 or at his website.

Riefler and Sabraw are continuing to work on the paints, and hope to create a viable commercial line, with proceeds going to clean up polluted streams in Ohio.

The Art of Science: Beautiful Chemistry


Today is Chemistry Nobel day, so it’s a perfect time to spotlight a new site that explores the beauty of chemistry though ultra-high-definition videos and interactive graphics. Beautiful Chemistry is a collaborative project by the University of Science and Technology of China and Tsinghua University Press.

The Beautiful Reactions section features videos taken with a 4K UltraHD camera and special lenses to capture chemical reactions in remarkable detail.  The Beautiful Structures page uses computer graphics and interactive technology to showcase some of the most classic and beautiful chemical structures, including crystals, DNA and amorphous solids.

Beautiful Chemistry, which launched last month, hopes to use digital media and technology “to bring the beauty and wonder from the chemistry world to a wide audience. In addition, we want to achieve a unique aesthetic of chemistry, making chemistry approachable and lovable.” You can find more information on the video techniques and coming attractions on the Beautiful Chemistry blog.


The Art of Science: Crystal Blue Installation

Roger Hiorns, Seizure, 2008
Roger Hiorns, Seizure, 2008

In 2008, British artist Roger Hiorns turned a derelict London flat into a major modern artwork. He created the piece, Seizure, by reinforcing and waterproofing a small, condemned apartment and then pumping in 75,000 liters of copper sulfate solution. After a few weeks, Hiorns pumped the liquid back out, and what remained was a glittering gem – the walls, floors and ceilings all covered with bright-blue crystals. Hiorns had previously created other crystal encrusted sculptures, so he knew how to work with copper sulfate. But he admits that the crystals in Seizure grew larger and quicker than expected – which was part of the art, allowing the natural process to happen in a way that was only partially controllable by the artist.

The finished work brings to mind the underground lair of some mythical creature, or perhaps the inside of a geode. Earlier this year, Seizure was moved to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, where a special building was erected to house it. Because of the delicate chemistry of the piece, it cannot get wet or too hot. The new structure will allow many more people to visit the work, a good thing because Hiorns has said he has no interest in repeating himself by creating more crystallized pieces.

Want to make one yourself? Here’s a simple tutorial on how to grow copper sulfate crystals. Be sure to check with your parents, landlord, or spouse before coating entire rooms.

Hat tip to @Orthelious, whose Bearpope tumblr is fully of arty goodness

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