Spencer Finch: At the Intersection of Science and Art

by Allison Musante '10

Every spring since 1964, the School of Humanities and Sciences has sponsored the C. P. Snow Lecture Series to recognize individuals who, like author and scientist Sir Charles Percy Snow, bridge the gap between the studies of humanities and sciences. In April, the College was buzzing about this year’s guest, internationally renowned artist Spencer Finch, and the exhibition, A Day of Science and Art, which involved students and faculty from the biology, chemistry, physics, and art departments but was enjoyed by the entire College community. Bill Hastings, lecturer in art and coordinator of the event, says that the day fulfilled Snow’s belief in building bridges between disciplines. “We’ve got humanities and sciences, and that ‘and’ is like a wall in many cases,” he said. “But what many people don’t realize is that art requires scientific thought and science requires creative thought.”

Martha Ormiston ’09, a film, photography, and visual arts major, was one of more than 200 people to walk through the Center for Natural Sciences building where Finch’s artwork was on display. “My favorite was the melting ice piece that dripped into the color of the sky. I thought it was simple and beautiful.”

Inspired by a glacier he observed in New Zealand, Finch developed a dye that captured the exact color of the sky. He soaked ice in this dye and allowed it to melt naturally. For Finch’s installation at Ithaca College, Hastings and associate professor of biology Peter Melcher worked together to make this dyed ice according to Finch’s specifications. Melcher, chair of the C. P. Snow committee, said that although this was Finch’s first experience showing his artwork on a college campus, “he really did a fantastic job of integrating his own work with the artwork of IC students on scientific subjects.” In Finch’s installation “Bee Purple,” he demonstrated how bees see the world through their compound eyes; having worked with a neuroscientist, he learned that bees see a color in the ultraviolet spectrum that humans cannot see. Students helped Finch set up the installation by putting up blue and green filters on the light bulbs to represent the color and setting up hexagonal blocks striped with black light paint to represent flowers. “I said to them, ‘Well, let’s think of these blocks generally as a flower, but the bees’ vision is separated and fragmented, so each cluster represents a flower and they just see the lines, the information they need for pollination.’”

Visitor participation was invited in other exhibits: at the “Big and Small” exhibit, visitors looked at plant slices and human cells through microscopes and sketched what they saw. Then they compared their drawings with images of the galaxy (provided by assistant professor of physics Matthew Price) in order to observe similar shapes and patterns. Finch said he enjoyed participating in this activity with the students. “Just spending time with the microscope was really fun,” he said. “That’s something I haven’t done in 20 years or so. As soon as I get home, I’m going on eBay to buy one.”

Showcased near this activity, students’ work from Carla Stetson’s, Susan Weisend’s, and Bill Hastings’s art classes mirrored this idea of looking at nature from a small and large perspective, or “micro and macro,” as scientists call it. “We went to the greenhouse to study organic structures, and then under the microscope, we saw what you normally can’t see with your eyes,” said Halley See, a senior art history major who took Weisend’s printmaking lithography course. “I’ve never done anything like this before, so getting to see the world through different sides was just beautiful.”

The creation of materials for and setup of “Newtonian Light” and “Color Wheel” was a collaborative effort among Finch, Melcher, physics faculty members Luke Keller, Bruce Thompson, and Matthew Price, as well as physics major Justin Sousa ’09. During the exhibit, the physics faculty demonstrated how to split and refocus light to isolate or create certain wavelengths of color.

Visitors were invited to mix paints to witness these principles of additive and subtractive color in action. Alongside the experiment, students in art professor Jeremy Long’s painting class displayed their artwork inspired by the concept behind “Newtonian Light.” Students imposed a grid over an enlarged photo of themselves and used this to draw a self-portrait by isolating the individual color squares that compose the image. “The students had to look at each square as a single painting,” Long said. “Each color is different and hard-fought for.”

Finch’s visit inspired collaboration between the arts and sciences on campus even before the Day of Science and Art arrived. In the fall semester, Finch came to campus and met with 15 faculty and students to discuss how they would convert the science building into an art display of science in action. Finch was keen to have the students involved in the entire process from the beginning, and Melcher says that the interactions Finch helped forge between science and art faculty will continue. “We plan to continue to have the art students create art from microscopic images,” Melcher said. “I am sure that this is just the beginning for our interactions and more will come of it in the future, too.”

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