Dr. REGINA VALLUZZI: The Grand Experiment - Bridging the gap between science & art
Dr. REGINA VALLUZZI has always pursued art in tandem with her technical achievements in Nanotechnology and Biophysics. She is a trained scientist, with a BS in Materials Science from MIT and PhD in Polymer Science from University of Massachusetts Amherst. She has spent years as a researcher in the Chemical, Physical and Biological Sciences. Dr. Valluzzi’s scientific experience is evident in her approach to painting as both an art and a science. She has been able to conduct systematic experiments with artistic media.
For many years her Science has revolved around the topics of Polymers and Optical phenomena, and these twin fascinations are present in much of her art. Dr. Valluzzi has shown in several juried exhibitions, and her work is included in private collections in the US, UK, Japan, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Bulgaria, and Malta.
Interview by Will Kitson
Both art and science have been long held passions of yours. Did these interests develop independently of each other? Which one came first?
I was surrounded by both art and science from an early age. Asking when I became interested in either art or science seems rather like asking when I first became interested in learning to speak.
I would say I first became interested in science as a serious pursuit and possible career. Art was just something I did until I left home for College. Oddly enough, MIT was where I first began to pursue art more seriously. I think that the high pressure science-focused environment made art more necessary as an alternative mode of expression. At the same time the tech-focused environment freed me to pursue my own artistic ideas and to begin to develop my own unique artistic voice.
Students with an interest and skill in the visual arts were very unusual at MIT at the time (late 1980’s). The lack of other student artists and lack of expectations from an artist community was somewhat isolating, but it was also very freeing – no peer or group pressure to conform.
In terms of science, you have an extensive educational background, but as an artist you describe yourself as being ‘self-taught’. What do you think are the particular merits of an autodidactic approach?
This is an interesting question. In order to pursue any type of independent activity in the sciences, you need an advanced degree. A PhD and postdoctoral experience is typical for people first starting to propose and pursue their own research topics. Yet most of post-undergraduate science education is hands-on research experience. In a way an advanced science degree cultivates an autodidactic approach, with just enough structure in place to ensure a student’s success. Art doesn’t require formal education per se. This situation does remove some arbitrary educational barriers to entry. However the lack of formal requirements also removes some of the educational structures that can be very beneficial. In particular, I have found that a formal class in the basics of a new technique can be very helpful. I took an introductory Oil painting class when I had been working with oils for about a year. We learned some very useful things about how to mix, thin, thicken, dry and apply oil paint and were introduced to a few different approaches to creating a painting. It would have taken much longer to get a grip on all of the basic mechanics of oil painting and move on to developing artistic skill and a style as a pure autodidact.
Once an artist understands how the materials work, and some basic ideas about light, shadow and form, there’s really very little benefit to pursuing class after class (in my opinion). It’s true that workshops may be a great way to meet people and make friends. However classes that try to address really detailed specific of artistic practice are often. I have seen many “Master classes” that arbitrarily elevate very “realistic” renderings over a deeper understanding of the power and potential of the medium.
Too often art school tends to promote realistic technique and stylistic conformity over creativity, originality and finding one’s own authentic artistic voice. This is especially true for children deemed artistically talented at an early age. They are almost invariably encouraged to pursue very realistic (often developmentally inappropriate) styles, or to copy a famous artist very closely. As these talented young people mature, it becomes very difficult for them to break away from the idea that “good” art looks like the pastiche they learned in school. Autodidacts have to be more careful about mastery of materials and techniques. I do believe that a level of skill in realistic renderings makes a better artist – even for wholly Abstract painters. I have also found that many of the talented and original autodidacts I have met have a significant depth of understanding regarding the various contemporary and historical currents in their medium of choice. I believe that many autodidacts work harder to really understand what has been done, what skills they need and what ideas about “good art” have some validity versus hose that are arbitrary or outdated.
Tell us about your creative process. Does it differ depending on whether you’re working on an artistic or scientific project?
The short answer – a scientific project often involves a good bit more math. In both cases I will generally start by defining the “problem”. What is it I want to do or investigate? What do I need to know to get there? Once the problem is defined (Step zero), the first step (Step 1) for me is gathering information.
For an art project “Step 1” involves researching materials to find likely materials and sources for the effects and behaviors I want in the finished piece. For example, I have a piece called “Snow Melt”, where I wanted certain features of the painting to slowly and reversibly disappear as the sun warms the room (they return once the environment cools again). The information gathering phase for “Snow Melt” involved looking for sources of thermochromic pigments and finding pigments with color to clear transitions right in the temperature range of a warming room.
Step 2 in both cases involves some preliminary exploratory experiments. If I have a scientific hypothesis, preliminary experiments help identify key variables and important and interesting phenomena. In the case of an artistic work, I need to test out novel materials and new techniques to see how they work in an actual painting. I usually do a few small test pieces to work out the details of how the different materials behave together, how they look when dry, what happens in terms of shrinkage, transparency, gloss, adhesion, etc.
In both cases Step 3 is a first focused attempt at the “grand experiment”, which usually can be refined and expanded over several iterations.
You’ve said that your scientific research informs much of your work as an artist. Can you give us a specific example of when this has happened?
Other than my overall process, which parallels the development of a scientific research proposal, I have several pieces that use scientific concepts as subject matter.
Many of my paintings deal with scientific subjects, but they are often loose and interpretive. My paintings often try to address difficult to visualize theoretical ideas rather than the more phenomenological ideas presented in most of the drawings. For example, “Associations” is an abstraction of the ideas behind colloidal attractions and the lattice models used to model these phenomena.
My drawings are some of the more literal ”science figure” derived pieces in my work, and they explore processes involved in scientific communication and symbol creation as well as the theories and ideas themselves. A number of my ink drawings can almost function as scientific figures or illustrations. I say “almost” because in the sciences the process of reducing data and theory to a graphic involves several highly codified steps. This codification of scientific graphics makes can make them opaque and unintelligible to the general viewer. While these rules may seem somewhat arbitrary they are necessary in order for a scientist on one side of the globe to reproducibly interpret a graphic created by a scientist half way around the world.
By breaking certain scientific illustration conventions, I can create pieces that can be appreciated as unusual and fascinating works of art, but that retain a rich scientific content. This is what I attempt to do in drawings like “Entropic Repulsions”, “Intracellular Diversion”, “Complex Fluid” and other pieces. For example “Entropic Repulsions” explores a useful property of entropy. Entropy relates to the number of distinct states a molecule can access.
Because the style of my pieces lacks the specific codification of a scientific figure, they are subject to interpretation, and perhaps even scientific mis-interpretation. As art they are intriguing and can open the door to curiosity about some interesting scientific phenomena.
From your perspective does art ever influence science, in your own work or in general?
The sciences have their own rich communities and to a certain extent their own cultures. Many scientific disciplines are highly visual, for example microscopy-rich materials science and microbiology. I have seen a growing trend towards recognizing the aesthetic and artistic aspects of data and data renderings. Some are almost on the verge of creating their own art, bridging the informative and purely Aesthetic and imaginative aspects of data and data imaging.
As fairly intense little communities, scientific disciplines have often been fairly insulated from the self-described “art world”, but that doesn’t mean that scientists are not influenced by art in subtle ways. In general the sciences train people to look at and filter anything that might affect the interpretation of data in a fairly rigorous way. The choice of field and research topic and simply the ideas that are deemed interesting are much more fluid. If people are choosing research topics because the data is beautiful, that’s art diffusing in.
Describe to us a place where you feel most creative.
In bed, just as I’m waking up or going to sleep. I like to calculate out what I can do that day, create alternative works in my head and just see where my imagination takes me. Until the cat jumps on my face.
If the universe inside you were to be contained in just one symbol what would that symbol be?
To learn more about the scientific concepts behind each of Dr. Valluzzi’s artworks featured in this interview, please click HERE
Published: May 7th, 2015