You have only to watch children as they cast aside the contents of a gift to play with the box or the wrappings, to see all the stages of creative thinking at work. When questioned, they describe the box as a rocket, house or car and with the simplest of language, they establish metaphors drawing analogies which illustrate beautifully the famous quote by Picasso: ‘Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”
Gaia- A Quantum Sculpture for The Anthropocene era. Shown Utopia/Dystopia Show, Bath, UK (May 2016)
As a physicist, public speaker, educator, but always an artist, my work is about metaphors and how to communicate them, connecting ideas and methods from seemingly very different worlds in order to find some new resonant harmonic. This is common to all artists of course, as they trawl their individual experience to find visual metaphors, but mine are based in paradox and duality; the very foundations of the Quantum World and of Light. Duality is not only responsible for the ‘being’ of light as both wave and particle, but also for the stuff of matter. Simply by attempting to interact with something we change the nature of that thing. But is this not ultimately the ideal of all Art within Society? So, an original training in painting and figuration led me to address this paradox through another language I understood; that of light and the laws that govern it.
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.” Albert Einstein.
The childlike joy we feel when we see a rainbow, is something that has always filled me with awe and is one of my driving inspirations in creating Quantum Sculptures. For a fleeting moment we can return to the simplicity of childhood, so quickly forgotten with the frenetic onset of adulthood.
‘Awe’ drives Creativity: its why scientists master difficult concepts in order to discover something new; why budding engineers feel the need to take this information and turn it into something tangible that ‘works’; why writers draw from it to communicate more on the human condition and why artists borrow from all these areas, to enlighten and make us stop and revisit the familiar, but from a slightly different perspective. It’s this creative ability that artists have, to not only see things as they truly are, but also to borrow from and connect so many different metaphors, which is of such value in a modern world continually homogenised in terms of material objects and cultural influences, and in which technology is rapidly replacing much of our daily interaction. I believe it is our imaginations and how we use them that will differentiate us; it’s what makes us unique. By being more creative, we not only stay more useful in an era of extended lifetimes, but we can also turn seemingly unsurmountable global problems, into opportunities.
Art is Society’s litmus paper and, the growing momentum of Avant-Garde movements such as Sciart (or ArtSci) not only employ all the technological processes which are changing our world at an exponential rate, but also comment upon what is being left behind and predict what is to come. I have never been an environmentalist as such, always living in the Metropolis, but years of contact with the young, being a parent myself and a rapidly growing network of fascinating collaborators, has made me realize that although science and technology can help us correct the outcomes of the Industrial Revolution, it is Art which will allow us to remember why we need to. It’s why I have been working on a series of pieces based on The Dystopia we currently inhabit and The Utopia we could experience, if only we could halt the Anthropocising of our world before the results prove irreversible.
And so my metaphors have expanded beyond the simply quantum nature of light to the Quantum nature and entanglement in everything, from the chemistry of bonded molecules and the navigation of insects, to the engineering of genes and the Future Thinkers who are helping us navigate through the uncertainty of this quantum world to a new age of Enlightenment.
Connection making in Science and Art -finding a common language
It was Galileo that gave us The Scientific Method of constructing a hypothesis from an idea, and a process by which we tested and then analyzed to draw a new conclusion. Every student who has ever graced a laboratory, will be familiar with the process based on gathering empirical data confined by physical, tangible laws; but what of art and its different language and metaphors? Is there a degree of commonality?
To address this, briefly, it was only with the advent of The Industrial Revolution that Art and Science were divided into discrete subjects. You have only to visit the Royal Academy of Art in Piccadilly which is situated next door to both the The Royal Societies of Chemistry and Astronomy, to understand the well documented effect lectures at both might have had on the likes of William Turner in his representations of the sun in his 19th Century watercolours, for example. And prior to this we had the Renaissance in 15th Century Italy, the champion of which was Da Vinci and later in 18th century England the Enlightenment movement so beautifully captured by painters such as Joseph Wright (which I got to explore during a STEAM Fellowship at Derby Silk Mill Museum last year). And at the tail end of the 60’s in New York, artists began once again, to be inspired by the engineers and scientists at the forefront of new technologies in New York, and ‘Sciart’ was born, (as has been well documented by Prof. Arthur I. Miller in his excellent book ‘Colliding Worlds’).
Thus, personally I believe the areas of commonality can be found in our ability ‘to see’ and the ways in which we ‘make our thoughts visible’. As a scientist, I might measure with a ruler, but as an artist I will reference the distance between two points in terms of the negative space between. Either way, I have to suspend what I think is there and replace it with what is actually there, even if I reject it during the creative process at a later date. This proved wonderfully helpful during my research into the quantum mechanics of energy levels and their relative change in position when their actual positions could never be ascertained. When starting a new series of work, I therefore need to understand the empirical nature of the materials and the processes before I will dive into uncertainties of colour mixing or mark making and be at liberty to allow my intuition free reign. Much like an experiment, in order to have complete freedom in one variable, others things must be constrained. As an artist or scientist, I would find it undesirably chaotic to explore different palettes, types of materials and mark making simultaneously. The language describing ‘commonality’ will always be a challenge for collaboration in different fields, or between two halves of the brain, but a welcome one, as it’s from this stretching of perspectives and searching for connections that Innovation is born.
The Creative Process
Until recently, Scientists were unwilling to enter into an empirical discussion of precisely what the nature of Creativity is. You either had it, or you didn’t. It was treated as a mysterious Muse which was only visited upon the very special or the gifted. But with the advent of Neuroscience, Neuroaesthetics and AI, this mysterious gift from the Gods we call ‘creativity’ and how we can attain more of it, has become a little more tangible. We now know it has four distinct stages: Preparation, Incubation, Illumination and Verification. Dismantling the mysterious process provides a means by which holes can be addressed. It’s a wonderful paradox that something that once seemed so ethereal can, to a certain extent, be broken down and be subjected to the same scientific method involved in the laboratory. However, in an age of constant distraction it is the ‘incubation and illumination’ periods which we sometimes curtail. One method of overcoming this is engaging in the 3 B’s (bed, bath and bus), and engaging with Nature (as did so many of the great Physicists from Einstein to Heisenberg) in which we allow time for ideas and solutions to simply present themselves. From my own experience, I know that this method works. I have had the privilege of working with and speaking to many different disciplines, from engineers to psychotherapists, who want to find a method by which they can release more easily the creativity that is inherent in all of us.
Personally, the breakthrough came with a wonderful art tutor who gave me the ‘permission‘ to draw from my physics background ten years ago when I was painting figuratively and regarded both as completely separate. That breakthrough in thinking, led to a new series using the Heisenberg Certainty/ Uncertainty machine in which I explored the nature of the ‘perfect line’. This series then led to an interest in Chaos and Cymatics and ultimately back to the repeating, mathematical patterns in Nature.
Sometimes all it takes is permission to draw upon all the inspirational mental treasure boxes we have in our cerebral vaults. But it’s also an awareness that Creativity with a big ‘C’ only happens from the accumulation of every day small ‘C’ creative actions; small changes in our routine, such as making a sandwich in a lightly different way, or walking a different route. The cumulative effect, if is then added to from the middle sized ‘C’ we have gained from mastering a profession, can lead to Big ‘C’ breakthroughs. It’s the Big, ‘C’ creative and Eureka moments which lead to paradigm shifts and major leaps of innovation. This process also reinforces just why collaboration across many fields is invaluable. Rare are the individuals who have achieved this alone and probably why we herald them as ‘geniuses’.
It was Steve Jobs in 2005 in a seminal speech at The Stanford Commencement, who talked about the ‘joining of the dots’ that happen throughout a lifetime with our accumulated knowledge:
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”
It’s one of the most inspirational speeches I have ever heard and it reminds me of the power of curiosity and the power of failure, because it is often precisely because of these challenges, that our brains are forced to find a new path for the dots to follow. Its why ‘play’ whether for young or old is so important in any field. It allows for failure, fluency of ideas and for taking risks we otherwise might not. It’s why I still love painting in watercolour: the risks are great but the rewards when they come, are so beautifully spontaneous that they simply couldn’t be achieved any other way
On the left an experiment in 2015 in Light & Plastic I called Chaos and an earlier rendition in paint using the Heisenberg Certainty/Uncertainty machine in 2006 which is 160x160cm Bitumen, Gloss, Pigment, varnish and gesso.
Fluency, failure and a little chaos need to be seen as opportunities and not as reasons to simply give up. Every artist who has ever produced a thing of beauty has previously rejected many unseen works and no scientific discovery, has ever been reached without a huge number of false starts. Yet, it’s often those ‘false starts’ which lead to new discoveries we didn’t expect, and had we not the artist’s or scientist’s ability to really ‘see’ ‘these failures would become lost opportunities.
By applying all these things to my own practise, albeit unconsciously, it was only recently that I realized I am a painter, who sculpts. At last my dots started to join into a narrative; it has taken me from the colour research I once did with ICI, through my Doctoral research at UCL into the rare earth doping of semiconductors for fiber optics, to the outreach and talks on creative science, to the use of watercolours, to now working with light and plastic. Illumination, transparency and light have run throughout it all.
But as with many things, it’s only when we think we have at last got it-why we do what we do- that it changes. Routine is after all the nemesis of creativity and innovation and I have often spoken about the ‘minestrone’ that exists in our subconscious. A lifetime’s knowledge, which is thrown together and which incubates when we imagine we are doing other things. As we practice for longer, that minestrone becomes fuller and richer, with more and more ingredients, until the connections that have been alluding us become so transparently obvious, that we marvel at why it took so long.
Often described as a ‘Quantum Artist’ or Sci-Artist because of my dual background as artist and physicist, to me, these titles no seem longer sufficient. It’s classification by boxes; but what if our ‘box’ exists between two other boxes? The quantum world is full of such paradoxes and much like the famed thought experiment by Schrödinger, it is only when we open our constructed box that we find out whether the ‘cat’ is alive or dead, science or art or indeed, still neither or both? At that point, all the possible worlds the cat could exist in fall to one; the wave function is said to have collapsed. The universe we see becomes the one we have helped create much like my work, where the shapes are freed from the material of plastic, almost creating themselves.
The innovative process by which I now create my ‘Quantum Sculptures’, drawn for so many disciplines such as microscopy, engineering and optics, I see as existing between the world of the more traditional in art and the very futuristic informatic and virtual. Like a smaller stepping stone between the past and the future (unlike a quantum leap which have always seen as an odd analogy for massive change but then Bohr valued the idea of paradox in order to achieve understanding). The colours change as you move; complimentary when reflected and almost negative when seen from behind. Dual again in their seeming transparency and yet tangible in that they do occupy physical space. The creation of this work is as inherently linked to my training as a painter, as to a physicist, as to the 1000’s of children and adults I have spoken to over the years during outreach and training. They are all intertwined. I have been as inspired by the workings of young minds as I hope I have inspired them.
After the process of preparation and incubation there is nothing quite as delicious as finding the illuminating link between seemingly unrelated things before we go off to create and verify as artists or scientists. After many years of being sponge- like in my accumulation of the knowledge and things that inspire me, I realize I work almost in reverse. I don’t really plan a series as such: I am after all an experimentalist and it is what I have access to process and material, wise which will inform very often what I do next. The materiality of ‘making’ or as I call it ‘thinking with hands’ is very important to me.
This is the reason working with the malleability of plastics right now after painting and creating installations feels right. Material science is expanding at such a rate that it makes sense that we try new ways of realising traditional ideas. So it’s often I find that I have a solution to a problem I need to find. My academic background meant I once worked very much from the head, reverentially trying to produce visual cues to scientific concepts but that has completely changed now that I have learned to listen more to my intuition and my emotional response. It’s still a journey I will be on for many years; or perhaps not; Inspiration has a way of surprising you.
As with any experiment, there are tools that I use in my thinking to help me find the reason I do what I do. Not because everything needs a reason but purely because it helps move the work to the next step. Are they somehow related to old works and ideas but in new materials/processes? Do they connect opposites? Do they connect to some other world? Did I find what I wasn’t looking for? Do they make a comment on something in Society?
Working with people who don’t know ‘our story’ and require it to be clear and succinct such a curators who force us to question, challenges our intention, and I now feel a need to rise above the pure process and materiality of what I do and say so much more about society and particularly our connections to each other and the environment. It’s funny how we can assume that someone must simply get what’s in our heads because it is so much part of us, but like the ‘wood and trees’ analogy sometimes it simply takes a new person to say ‘yes, but what is wood’, to allow yourself to be able to see you or your work, in a whole new light. It is strange how the subconscious will remain closed to what drives us until we are sufficiently driven to open and allow it to give up its answers.
My work, particularly the portraits and the pieces on consciousness, have alluded a collapsing wave function until recently. I realise now, it is the Italian glass I have always seen, the processes of melting and change I have always taken for granted; the reflections and masks of the Venetian canals, the interactions of communities and passionate opinions I have always simply overlooked, which have informed so much of what I do. Plastic like glass, has a natural malleable aesthetic and yet sometimes we can overwhelm with the inherent beauty of the material. Mastering a new way of making work and then mastering the necessary techniques, means we can sometimes lose sight of the ‘why’. But my ‘why’ surfaced much like the pasta as it floats to the top in a bowl of minestrone; my ‘why’ is based in the quantum processes we increasingly understand are in everything, from the
Photosynthesis of plants to the navigation of insects, to the Smart phones that have become virtual limbs and the Futurists who continue to inspire us to move our thinking forward.
Two large format prints on Aluminum for The Lewisham NHS Trust, based on a series inspired by The Anthropocene Era.
But the very carbon technologies creating the plastics we use, may well see the demise of the other living, breathing ecological web we take for granted. Perhaps, one day with the end of carbon based energies, we will have to go to museums precisely to see leaves-albeit in plastics, or will have to gain insight about how people really connected from the transparent portraits I have been molding from death-like masks so reminiscent of Venetian plaster casts.
I work with transparent materials and yet the metaphor had not extended to my understanding of my own work. Its takes a long time to become your own critic. But now I know, well for now, that I am a painter who sculpts with light and colour using the scientific knowledge I have accumulated over years of experience. But using transparent materials also means extending the metaphor to myself; forever changing perspectives, staying open and embracing the parts of the creative process such as serendipity and chance which are also so central to Quantum Theory: or perhaps I am simply someone who was long ago lost to the addictive properties of every dopamine rush a Eureka moment afforded me.
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