The science quad will contain more color and more happy birds beginning this week as students in Dynamical Systems (MATH 391) display their artwork representing a concept that they have studied in the bridges connecting the second floors of Hayes Hall, Tomsich Hall and Higley Hall. In addition to demonstrating the intersection between math and art, the large posters will hopefully also prevent birds from flying into the glass walls of the passageways.
Visiting Assistant Professor of Mathematics and Statistics Kitty Yang, who teaches the course, had her students create colorful grids representing examples of a two-dimensional symbolic system — wherein each colored square is a “symbol” — using colors from images that reminded them of home. She hopes that the art exhibit will show observers how connected math and art can be — in addition to saving the birds, of course.
“I’m hoping that [people walking by] see that this is math, and that math doesn’t just have to be numbers and counting and functions, and that it can manifest in a number of different ways,” she said in an interview with the Collegian.
The idea for the project came from Jodi Kovach, curator of academic programs at the Gund Gallery. She heard from Yang about the class and suggested a way to combine the curriculum with a piece in the Sympathy for the translator exhibit, Algonquin artist Caroline Monnet’s O pemodon — They Carry It. The piece is a large geometric pattern based on ones drawn on Anishinaabe and Algonquin baskets and beadwork, and is meant to be displayed on glass walls. Due to installation complications, O pemodon — They Carry It did not appear with the rest of Sympathy for the translator, but will instead be fully installed in the Gund Gallery atrium next week.
The students’ pieces were displayed similarly to O pemodon on the glass walls of the science quad bridges, alongside statements explaining the artists’ processes. The students not only produced works that visually resembled Monnet’s in terms of the geometric patterns involved, but their color selection process also related to Monnet’s inspiration — home. “[Monnet’s] work is really reclaiming this land and the sort of interplay of what home means, and that’s what we asked the students to pull from,” Yang said. The project also related to the translation-themed exhibit in that the two-dimensional symbolic system the students visualized is a system on which the only mathematical transformation was translation.
The assignment was to choose a few colors and randomly generate a grid electronically. But students such as Leif Schaumann ’25 extended the project to represent systems with additional structure, which is evident in the sometimes-repeating patterns in their works.
“I wanted the arrangement of pixels to have some greater mathematical meaning,” Schaumann wrote in an email to the Collegian about his choice to use simple rules to constrain which colors could be placed adjacent to other colors on certain sides. The structure resulting from this “cellular automaton” process resembled clouds, and he chose the colors accordingly.
“I hope that people get the same sense of awe that I do when I explore a mathematical topic/structure,” Schaumann said. “The fact that a deterministic rule produces these organic and chaotic looking shapes is really impressive to me, and I think it is a good example of why math is so amazing.”
According to Natalia Arrigoni ’24, another student in the class, the project achieved Yang’s goals. “This experience taught me that considering math and art together can offer a fresh perspective, inspiring innovation and igniting creativity,” she wrote in an email to the Collegian. “It made me realize that math is not just a dry, analytical subject, but can be used to create something expressive and imaginative.”
“[Math and art] are intimately connected, and being able to express yourself artistically can make you — and, I think, does make you — a better mathematician,” Yang said. “When we generate and discover new math … you have to have these flashes of inspiration that no one else has had before. And that, to me, parallels the artistic process so much.”
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