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Rebecca Kamen finds the pulse between art and science

Rebecca Kamen has no formal training in science, but she has mixed chemicals together and built a telescope. Those both happened when she was a child, after her parents gave her a chemistry set—totally illegal now—to play with in the basement of her Philadelphia home. It was the 1950s, the cusp of space exploration. Kamen's dad helped her build a telescope of cardboard tubes from New Jersey's Edmund Scientific company.

"It had funky optics but you could point it up to the heavens and believe you could see anything," she says. "I really wondered if you could."

Kamen's dyslexia discouraged her from going down the scientific path in high school. She had a hard time with math. And though she loved scientific exploration dearly, she never seemed destined to become a scientist. Still, for many years she crossbred her scientific curiosity with her love of visual art. Now a professor at Northern Virginia Community College, she's been teaching art for over 30 years. And as science has been a muse, she's found ways to inspire scientists with art.

In 2005, she exhibited some of her work at the American Center for Physics in celebration of Einstein's discovery of relativity. In front of 75 physicists she talked about the relationship between the two. Later, a friend's husband saw that exhibit and told her about the American Philosophical Society Library, which Ben Franklin had founded and which is a repository of scientific manuscripts. Kamen snagged a residency and, for a full year, she visited the library, reading manuscripts to inspire the design of her next exhibit.

"It was really wonderful because I got to examine—in bare hands—scientific manuscripts that dated back to the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, and have them speak to me," she says.

At the time the library installed the exhibit, Kamen had been teaching an art workshop in Korea. She flew back just in time for the opening. Inside the vitrines she saw her work alongside the original manuscripts.

"I have to tell you, she says, "I walked into the gallery before the opening and I stood in front of a case that had this sculpture that I had done and a beautiful document that was in the hands of Ben Franklin. I was overcome. How many people get to have their work next to an original Ben Franklin document? It was breathtaking for me."

Kamen found herself addicted to scientific manuscripts. She sought them out whenever she could. One day, after an overseas flight, she stepped off the plane and an image of the periodic table of elements popped into her head. It was the classic Dmitri Mendeleev chart—a boring model from the caverns of her 11th grade chemistry class. But she couldn't stop thinking about it. She spent a year and a half sifting through manuscripts at the Philadelphia Chemical Heritage Foundation and other such places. As it turned out, it was a trip to India while she was on sabbatical the gave her the light bulb moment.

click to enlarge Rebecca Kamen’s Missoula exhibition, Fluid, offers glowing sculptures that explore the way fluid in the body emulates forces outside the body including ocean tides.
  • Rebecca Kamen’s Missoula exhibition, Fluid, offers glowing sculptures that explore the way fluid in the body emulates forces outside the body including ocean tides.

"I had been interested in mandalas," she says. "The Buddhist meditation charts that are very circular and complex." She spent time looking at mandalas, and when she returned to the United States she had a different perspective on the chemical map.

"I realized that the periodic table wasn't just this boring, rigid chart of numbers and letters that we all had to memorize. It represented our cosmology—the Western cosmology. It represents the world above and the world below and everything in between."

Kamen began to create an installation based on the orbital patterns of electrons. She focused on the first 83 naturally occurring elements, and she created sculptures of each one. She elicited the help of an architect friend who helped her install the pieces to fit into the gallery space in Virginia where it was being shown.

As she worked on these scientific art pieces, Kamen started getting more phone calls and requests to speak at scientific conferences. A piece about her work in Chemical Engineering magazine inspired calls from chemists who were struck by her appreciation for their work as an artistic venture. As Kamen continued to delve into scientific arenas, she found evidence of how much art and science were intertwined. Doing research at the science libraries she'd found numerous illustrations by scientists about their work. Those drawings were practical in pre-camera days. Drawing was one way to visualize complex ideas, but they also turned out to be striking images to Kamen. Last week, she shared that experience with a group of aspiring scientists at George Mason University.

"I told them that before the advent of the camera, scientists had to be artists," she says. "At these libraries I would see these beautiful, hand-rendered manuscripts done by scientists, not artists, because it was the only way they could capture their research."

Kamen's upcoming exhibit at The Brink Gallery in Missoula will have sculptures made of acrylic on Mylar, and fiberglass rods. There's something very extraterrestrial about them in all their hypercolor greens, blues, reds, purples. They take on the sort of glow that you might see on a screen in a biology lab. In fact, Kamen was inspired by another experience where she got to watch cells repairing themselves under a microscope. The concept of her exhibit, Fluid, came from the idea that fluid in the body moves in the same way fluid in the outside world does; blood pumping has been explained by scientists in terms of ocean tides. The pieces for Fluid actually do look fluid and are meant to talk about both the micro and macro.

"I feel like my life's work is creating a conduit between art and science," Kamen says. "There are so many intersections. We both deal with invisible worlds and we both need to harness some type of visualization to share our observations."

Rebecca Kamen's exhibit Fluid opens at The Brink Gallery with a reception Friday, July 1, from 5 PM to 8 PM. Free.

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