Exploring the intersection of STEM fields in the art studio

STEM students in the art studio benefit from a deep understanding of the physical and chemical processes at work in art classes.

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Through sculpting, Margaret Kim utilizes her science background to envision the formation of life for a new fictional species. 

Ariana Gueranmayeh | Cavalier Daily

Many scientific processes take place in the art studio as students learn about the physical and chemical reactions of various materials involved in sculpting, painting and developing photos. STEM major students bring a useful background and perspective from the lab to the studio, and oftentimes the art projects are inspired by elements in science, biology or nature. Having a basic understanding of the physical and chemical processes in the studio, as well as conceptual knowledge about our physical world, have shown to be beneficial in many Studio Art courses. 

Many chemical processes occur during the development of a sculpture. One process is the natural atmospheric oxidation of metals that create a color change on the surfaces. Thin films, called patinas, form on the surface of certain metals as they interact with the atmosphere over time.

According to Assoc. Studio Art Prof. William Bennet, the copper in many structures can oxidize over time to change into a teal green color from its original shiny copper. 

“Sculptors have liked that green color, but they don’t want to wait 20 years,” Bennet said. In order to expedite this process, copper nitrate is added to the art to imitate this green color.

In addition to understanding the scientific processes, the ideas that emerge in scientific classes permeate the art studio. He encourages his students to explore their interests and personal identity through his sculpture courses at the University.

“I encourage students to use the knowledge they have from their other majors and bring it into their art,” Bennett said.

Bennett saw a benefit to having a double major in studio art and STEM fields. In his class, he mentioned having a good amount of biology and environmental science students, as well as a handful of students majoring in physics and engineering.

“Traditionally artists were taught art things, like drawing and how to mix paint, “Bennett said. “I think what’s really important now, and what’s important about our research institution of U.Va., is that many of my students are double majors, so … they have stories to tell that have relevance in the world, so they have something to talk about.”

Third-year College student Margaret Kim, who is double majoring in studio art and Biology, is currently working on a sculpture project titled, “Yuri and the Diamonds.” Biology course topics, such as species evolution and the formation of the first life forms, inspired Kim’s project within the art studio space. Her current project reimagines the evolutionary process for a new fictional species.

Currently in the first phase of her project, Kim is focused on crafting the different species’ embryos. Eventually she plans to make full-sized adult creatures out of plaster. Within her species, pearls indicate clusters of concentrated neurons, similar to the human brain. Yet these pearls are all over the body of her creatures, which challenges the viewer's mammal-centric perspective on the general concept of a head. 

Kim’s project began from a series of questions that emerged from her biology background. Kim hopes to challenge the viewer. 

“That’s on Earth, but there are so many possibilities,” Kim said, referring to the basics of evolution. “Imagine you have different planets with different evolutionary tracks.What if I create a whole new biological system”

Bennett explained how Kim’s background in biology likely prompted her project’s central question — what if things evolved differently? 

Through her art, Kim is able to push the limits of Earth’s physical boundaries and imagine the same Darwinist concepts occurring on a more universal scale. 

To explain her species and its physical properties, Kim will accompany her project with a short introductory biology textbook explaining the rules and evolutionary processes within her created world. She will borrow knowledge of Earth species’ evolution to explain the foundational elements of life producing many different organisms. She takes the concept of evolution out of a human-centric perspective in order to really focus on the science and possibilities of different evolutionary tracks. 

Concerning STEM and technology, Bennett explained how digital technologies are pervading many fields these days. 

“Designing on the computer is really powerful, and it is the future,” Bennett said. “Right now, it’s an exciting time. When I retire, the next sculptor will come in with a new skill set and new ways of designing and making. That’s the way it should be, and that’s the way it’s always been.”  

In our digital world, the art studio is a way to interact with the physical and stay more closely connected to the materials of the world for many students.

“I don’t think the important things are going to disappear,” Bennett said. “Stories are still going to be important, but stories are going to be told in different ways.”

He remains confident that different storytelling media will blossom.  

“That’s one nice thing about studio art … we’re carrying on ancient traditions,” he said. “The ancient traditions can still tell new stories.”

Each student brings their own unique background and knowledge to express ideas through the art studio, like using recycled materials and creating sustainable art. 

Zertash Zahid — third-year College student majoring in computer science and minoring in studio art — emphasized how technology has helped her improve her artistic vision. Due to her technological background, she was able to transform a simple drawing on paper into a digital one for others to view. 

“Adobe Illustrator published my ideas onto a digital platform to further modify and share with others,” Zertash said. “This software has taken my art from a drawing board to t-shirts, fliers and posters and given me a voice online. Having a computer science background has further helped me understand how a software such as Illustrator works, especially its limitations and unique features.”

She encourages others to understand the science behind any form of art. 

“Understanding the process will help you as an artist to enhance your work both online and in person,” Zertash said. 

The intersection of STEM fields and the studio art provides a great opportunity for students to explore the topics learned in the lab and test their boundaries in the studio. With the technological advances of today, new storytelling tools will emerge that will expand the methods of expression. Bennett is optimistic and ready to embrace the new methods to approach art.

“I know change is going to come,” Bennett said. 

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