August 13, 2009

Imogen Cain ’12 Works on Project Merging Art and Computer Science

Art major and Division I athlete writes about her research exploring the complex patterns in visual structures

Imogen Cain ’12 (Perkasie, Pa.) is working as an EXCEL Scholar on an interdisciplinary project led by Ed Kerns, Eugene H. Clapp II ’36 Professor of Art; Chun Wai Liew, associate professor and head of computer science; and Elaine Reynolds, associate professor of biology and chair of neuroscience. The project consists of using software to model organic structures and patterns and then layering them together to create more complex images. The artwork will be on display in an exhibition running Oct. 19 through Dec. 11 in the Williams Visual Arts Building. Cain, an art and economics & business double major, also is a member of the College’s Division I swimming and diving team.

This summer, I have the privilege to work as an EXCEL Scholar with painting professor Ed Kerns. Fellow art major Scott Lyttle ’10 (Easton, Pa.) and I have been collaborating with Ed to produce pieces of art for his current project and upcoming show. The project is an ongoing work that started two years ago with the Word, City, Mind exhibition at Muhlenberg College. We have been working in conjunction with Professor Liew to produce the emergent qualities of visual systems. The two professors are both very interested in recurring natural patterns and together they are exploring dynamic processes with visual structures.

Professor Liew and his team of students have created software programs that produce different forms and basic patterns such as bronchia, branching, concentre, and trees. We use these computational methods to explore how, as Professor Kerns says, “slight changes in the ‘rules of growth’ influence resulting visual structures.”

Scott and I take Professor Liew’s images and manipulate them in Photoshop or other programs on the computer. We are creating other natural forms and images for the works as well, such as snakes, insects, and birds. Then we print them out on many different sizes and types of paper and work with Ed to layer the images and create a final piece. We are exploring painting on top of these printed images so the “hand” is also included. We use glossy backlit film or textured fine art paper for background images and print other shapes, images, and designs on transparent glossy film to layer on top of these backgrounds.

“These forms are combined in layers of transparent surfaces that suggest shifting points in space and processes large and small defining the structure of matter itself. The multiple-layered works allow the viewer to see the evolutionary track back through the surface to the less complex visual systems from which the final image emerges,” says Professor Kerns.

The works are a kind of revolutionary model to help people see how using space can create more complex images. The exhibition will have many different pieces. Some will be framed in 24×30 frames, others will be in 20×26 frames, and we are also working on a series of large 30×90 hanging images. Professor Liew’s team has recently designed a program to create 3D images, so we are also working with that. We plan to project these images inside the gallery and on the outside of the Williams Visual Art Building for the opening of the show reception in November.

Working with Ed, Scott, and Professor Liew has been very exciting. It’s really cool to see science, technology, and art working together. Professor Kerns says that evolution is change, and over time, small changes can produce substantial change. Darwin’s theory holds that all life is related and descended from a common beginning.

I think it is really interesting that we are using these beliefs in our work. Ed also describes what we are doing by using the word “consilience,” which is the unity of knowledge and the idea that when different disciplines like science and art want to communicate, they need to create new models to better understand each other. We are creating models where a consilient conversation can occur. We’re asking a question that neither traditional art, science, nor technology can answer on its own, but put them together and you get something very intriguing! As an art major, I find this all very fascinating. Ed is always coming up with new ideas and different things to explore. For example, we are also working on a book cover design for a textbook and there are a few other jobs in the works, too.

Doing EXCEL with Ed is a lot of fun and has opened my eyes to so many opportunities that I never expected. I am still unsure of what I want to do after I graduate, but this is certainly helping me explore the art world. I plan to continue working with Ed during the school year and hopefully after that. I’m really enjoying it and I’m learning a lot!

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