Thursday, March 28, 2019

In Our Image

Today I arrived at my studio to find a post-it tacked to my door from a fellow artist. Was I available to help with a spreadsheet problem? I was grateful for a task I knew how to do. In truth it felt like a much easier undertaking than writing a blog or doing a painting, my original mission for the day. 

Soon I had found an easy fix to her dilemma and had her spreadsheet humming. After that bit of fruitful procrastination, I sat down in my studio to tackle my more difficult task, writing this long-neglected blog post on a topic on which I've been feeling my way.

As my artwork contains stories, I have to be able to share the underlying story or concept succinctly. I’ve been wrestling with how to explain a difficult concept that underlies a painting.  It is one thing to paint, another to create a story that stays with the viewer.  Usually I am much more facile at such tasks, but this time I seem to be a bit stumped, in part because it is in science, a realm that is not my natural environment. 

So here's the project: Together with an Israeli artist as my partner, I was to address the theme of Judaism, art and science. We each create one piece of art on the theme and then share it digitally with our partner. We then modify and re-interpret our partner's artwork, creating a new work of art. While I have tackled many disciplines over time, science is most decidedly not my area of expertise. I began in my usual fashion, doing some research. In addition to Internet research, I read a book called Judaism, Physics and God by Rabbi David Nelson. Well that isn't exactly how it worked. First I carried the book around for a month hoping I would absorb it by osmosis, a scientific concept that unfortunately didn't work in this case. Did I mention that the topic both intrigues and intimidates me?

In Our Image
The book is an exploration of science as metaphor by a non-scientist. Metaphor is often the material of artwork, so I knew I was in the right realm. Nelson explores such topics as the big bang, quantum mechanics, chaos theory, relativity and string theory. With his training as a rabbi, he relates them to Judaism as metaphor, the other part of the equation. 

I was soon captivated by one theme in particular, fractals. Fractals are a fairly recent concept, having been identified in 1975 by Benoit Mandelbrot, a European-born Jewish mathematician. They rose to greater visibility with the advent of the computer which allowed a level of modeling previously not available. They can be used to explain things that can't be defined by Euclidean geometry because of their complexity and variation. As Mandelbrot once said, "Clouds are not spheres, mountains are not cones, coastlines are not circles and bark is not smooth, nor does lightning travel in a straight line."  Fractals allow for the complexity in the world. 

A fractal has a pattern of irregularity that is consistent throughout. It is as if you took a head of cauliflower and broke off a section. It would have a pattern that echoed the original. They call this "self-similarity." Think of them as irregular, repeating and essentially infinite as you can keep repeating the same form on smaller and smaller levels. Fractals also make use of chaos theory. What we used to think of as chaotic, may actually be part of a larger pattern.  Fractals are reflected in nature and in the human body. You will find them in lightening and in the branching of rivers, trees and clouds. In the human body you will find them in the bronchi of the lungs, the blood vessels and nervous system. With computers we can create fractals by formulas that govern such elements as branching.

Fractals are often beautiful images in their own right. I became intrigued with turning paintings into fractals using some on-line software. I dropped my painting into it and came up with the image below.
Fractal of painting
The study of fractals allows us to examine concepts that often appeared irregular and unpredictable but have an order and logic of their own. They have been used to study such diverse ideas as the growth of bacteria, traffic patterns and the stock market.

And so I began to paint. I decided to stay with the natural world and weave together three fractal images, trees, rivers and clouds. Within the tree you will find a fractal formula for branching. The clouds are modeled on an actual image somewhat stylized. 

So where does the Judaism piece come in? Look in the middle of the spiral and you will find a passage from the Bible that reads "Let us make man in our image after our likeness." Apparently God speaks in the royal we. I am intrigued with the way the universe has an internal logic that is repeating and reflected throughout many forms, from trees and clouds to the human body. I am also drawn to the idea that what appears random and chaotic may not actually be. 

I can't claim to understand fractals in all their nuances, certainly not through a scientific lens. And yet as someone who is always trying to understand the world, they do speak to me as a metaphor for life, recognizing complexity as part of a larger pattern that echoes throughout the world. On a more personal level we begin to see the patterns that repeat within our own life and the unexpected turbulence that moves it forward. And if it is all part of a larger pattern, perhaps we need a bird's eye view to fully see what surrounds us.

If you'd like to learn more about fractals, here are a few sites with additional information.

The Man Who Reshaped Geometry -great piece on Mandelbrot
Make Fractals of Images  -software to convert an image using fractals

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