Interdisciplinary Collaboration: Cool Science, Hot Art

Spencer Finch enlightens with installation art and C. P. Snow lecture.  by Erin McKigney ’09

Like many artists, Spencer Finch has a long list of classic painters whose work he admires and has studied. But as he spoke to a room full of IC students in April, Finch revealed a few atypical inspirations: Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, Samuel Morse.

Curiosity about science sparked Finch’s interest in examining the surprising intersections of two disciplines that might seem completely unconnected: science and art. “It wasn’t any sort of conscious decision,” Finch explains. “As I continued working as an artist, I started noticing there were connections and similarities between the way I worked and scientific methodology.”

Finch visited the campus as the 2009 guest in the College’s annual C. P. Snow Lecture Series, named after the late physicist and novelist Sir Charles Percy Snow and aimed at bridging the gap between the humanities and sciences. Time, distance, and light are among the themes that intrigue modern artists, including Finch. Drawing from a variety of media including pastel, watercolor, photography, glass tile, video, sculpture, and light installation, Finch enjoys replicating his personal experience with light and color at a specific time and place.

 “The relationship between time and light is interesting,” he says. “Once you start thinking about light, other areas open up. I would really like to be known as a colorist, because I’m very interested in color in the broader sense of the word.”

During Finch’s visit, the Center for Natural Sciences, generally adorned with periodic tables and scientific formulas, was transformed into a gallery featuring four of Finch’s installations alongside student and faculty artwork created throughout the semester to accompany Finch’s pieces. 

“The interaction between art students in a science building and science students looking at artwork is healthy,” says Finch. “People are bound to see something unexpected and maybe learn something.”

Art professor Susan Weisend, whose students were among those participating in the collaboration, says, “Spencer has a fascination with the world around him and investigates the science in everyday life in a specific way. He then documents that investigation by creating a work of art.”

In Finch’s installation “Sky,” the artist re-created the color of the sky in April over the Franz Joseph Glacier in New Zealand. He first created a dye matching that very particular blue. He then dyed water and froze it, piling the cubes onto a shelf-like structure representing the glacier. During the installation, as the glacier-cubes melted, the water dropped into a white tub below, creating a “liquid painting” of the sky.

Finch also incorporates the mysteries of perception into his art. In the installation “Bee Purple,” theater filters were used on fluorescent lights to approximate the light spectrum visible to bees — only from green to ultraviolet. Finch thus shows how a simple adjustment to light can change how people and other creatures perceive the world. 

“ ‘Bee Purple’ was cool,” says writing major Laura Catapano ’09, who also had her artwork displayed, “but I don’t know if I quite understood it.”

Finch’s objective is changing how people look at the world and perceive their surroundings. “I’m not so interested in providing answers,” says Finch. “And that might be one way science is different from art. Science is always looking for answers — even though it’s 99.9 percent asking questions and only that little bit at the end is the answer.”

Finch concluded his day on campus with a talk, “Beauty and the Scientific Method,” in which he further pointed out how science and art are more parallel than they seem, and how artists like Monet and Seurat blended the two disciplines.

Finch, who has displayed his works worldwide, enjoyed being with the IC students. Like them, he was eager to learn, experiment, and interact.

“Just spending time with the microscope this morning was fun,” Finch told his audience. “It’s something I probably haven’t done in 20 years, and as soon as I get home I want to go on eBay and find myself a microscope.” No doubt he’ll find a creative way to use it.


See story about Jon Karafin ’04, whose work also blends arts and sciences.