CMU Leads the Way at the Science/Art Interface

Carnegie Mellon, known for its unique approach to multidisciplinary initiatives, is poised to jump-start another semester with a series of on-campus endeavors intended to bridge the gap between science and art.

On the academic front, a new course called The Color of Minerals and Inorganic Pigments has generated considerable excitement among students. Spearheaded by the Mellon College of Science and the School of Art, the class will afford 12 seniors (six art majors and six chemistry majors) the rare opportunity to roll up their sleeves and rekindle their inner Van Gogh ? while working in a chemistry lab.

?In preparing this class it has struck me how painters and chemists work in similar environments (the laboratory/studio), with similar materials (reagents/solvents chemical compounds/pigments),? said Clayton Merrell, associate professor of art at Carnegie Mellon and co-instructor of the course, in a press release from August 31, 2005. ?Color will be the focus of our class because it is one of the most obvious and seductive areas of overlap.?

Recalling the days when artists obtained their paints using the raw minerals available to them, the class will give its students the chance to actively engage in the artistic process from the ground up ? a process fundamentally scientific in nature.

Said Margot Wilson, a senior in MCS: ?Essentially, we?ve been learning about color and how it applies to science (wavelengths, absorption, primary colors ? which are actually red, blue, and green, not yellow like we learned in elementary school) and to art (how vision works, the three different axes in which colors vary). I think this interdisciplinary class helps everyone in it gain a better understanding about how two different fields relate to each other and how together they form a more comprehensive and complete understanding of our subject: color.?

?My personal view is that there is no natural gap between chemistry and art, but that there is a natural connection between these two fields of human endeavor,? said Catalina Achim, an assistant professor of chemistry and co-creator of the class. ?Artists have traditionally prepared inorganic pigments by selecting minerals that were appropriate for creating artwork and by learning how to combine them to create desired, long-lasting, artistic effects.?

The curriculum is designed to further enrich the learning experience by exploring classroom themes on multiple levels. In addition to using analytical chemistry to facilitate and enhance their artwork, the students will be given the chance to visit the Hillman Hall of Minerals and Gems at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, the Research Center on the Materials of the Artist and Conservator, and the Carnegie Museum of Art in an effort to rigorously investigate all aspects of the trade.

Although the course?s scope is expansive, its actual enrollment is tight. Interested students, or those who fail to obtain a slot this semester, can view the final laboratory research project on the origins of color in the University Center later this fall.

Springboarding from art in chemistry to art in biology, the Regina Gouger Miller Gallery is housing a month-long exhibition titled Animal Nature, a raw and somewhat disconcertingtour de forceinto the mind, body, and psyche of the animal. Originating as a web project, the exhibition features the bold and eccentric artwork of many renowned artists attempting to wrangle and expose the ?postmodern animal.?

?Why animals?? asked Lane Hall, who came up with the CriminalAnimal website in the spring of 2003 while teaching at the University of Wisconsin?-Milwaukee. ?It is clear that even within the last year, there is a growing interest in the field.... When we study animals we study ourselves. When we represent animals, we represent ourselves.? Elaborations on these and other themes by Lane Hall as well as gallery director Jenny Strayer can be found in the Animal Nature guidebook, available to all visitors.

The gallery houses three floors of exhibits that range from the mildly amusing to the downright bizarre. Walking into the sparsely-lit first floor, one is immediately greeted by an imposing 15-foot white screen that is quickly invaded ? this could catch you off guard ? by a flurry of 15-foot cockroaches. On the opposing wall stands another projection, titled ?Burning at the Stake,? which features ? those of you recovering from your heart attacks will find this mildly satisfying ? a cockroach burning at the stake. For better or worse, both pieces are notable for showcasing the unseemly but undeniably humane facial features of the cockroach ? a resemblance that makes hooting and hollering at their execution somewhat difficult.

Touring the gallery in its entirety, visitors can examine the various ways artists interpret animals and their relationships towards them. Another striking projection, this one on the second floor, is Per Maning?s ?Breather.? Inspired by news of his dog?s terminal illness, this black-and-white cinematographic ?experience? comes complete with a disorienting Blair Witch Project?like tromp over an endless stretch of sandy terrain ? all from the perspective of a frantic and unhinged animal. After much commotion, the feature naturally segues into a prolonged face-to-face staredown with a stupendously large cow. The quirky photography and crisp sound effects make for an entertaining viewing experience, to say the least.

Video projections are but a few of the multifarious exhibits on display. Visitors can wear ape gloves and examine books and photographs, listen to a collection of lyrebird songs, digitally interact with microorganisms, or peer over the edge of a well and watch a sheep helplessly contemplate its doom.
Animal Nature is open through October 2, 2005. The Regina Gouger Miller Gallery is located in the Purnell Center for the Arts and is open Tuesday through Sunday from 11:30 am to 5 pm. Make sure you ride the elevator between floors ? you don?t want to miss the buck-toothed dancing grandmother eating hams from a conveyor belt.