As Fermilab’s first artist in residence, my workspace had some unusual supplies for an artist’s studio. Pinned to my idea board I had a list of subatomic particles, quotes from popular physics books, the names of inspiring physicists, and a picture of Nobel Laureate Marie Curie. I use my art project to explore and explain how particle physics underpins all of life. Using science and art together not only energized my studio practice, but it also changed the way I see our universe.
Early in 2014, Georgia Schwender invited me to tour the lab after attending one of my art events. In the middle of the tour, she turned to me and asked me if I wanted to help her establish an artist residency at the lab. Fermilab’s founding director Dr. Robert Wilson was himself both a scientist and an artist. Georgia wanted to extend his vision of using art as a powerful form of outreach to help others understand the beauty of particle physics.
On my first day at the lab someone handed me a book, The Quantum Frontier, by Dr. Don Lincoln, senior scientist at Fermilab and co-discoverer of the Higgs Boson Particle. Most people are familiar with the periodic table used to organize chemical elements; the Standard Model organizes and explains subatomic (smaller than an atom) particles and the forces (gravitational, electromagnetic, weak, and strong) that govern them. It tells how the cosmos in which we live can be explained as endless combinations of key subatomic particles, governed by a handful of principles.
THE STANDARD MODEL: MATERIALS AND METHODS Many artists use oil paint, watercolor and other traditional materials. But when I work, I want to use media to reinforce the message in the art. The materials I use for each project are as much a part of the work as the subject matter. I want to figure out a way to have the least amount of distance between the viewer and the art. Everyone uses textiles in their daily lives, so creating work in them felt like a natural choice.
The study of Physics is ancient, and I wanted to use colors that suggest antiquity. I’ve included a democratic use of high-end silks and laces with work- a day -fabrics like denim and canvas. I also chose blackboard paint because blackboards are ubiquitous in the lab. There are blackboards in offices, hallways and even outside the women’s washroom on the second floor of Wilson hall!
I also used time-consuming hand processes in making the pieces: beading, embroidery and hand sewing. Historically, beading and hand embroidery were used on luxury clothing. Using these sorts of processes to create the art elevates the subject matter.
The pieces are human-sized. Physics deals with scales that are both infinitesimal and cosmic; I wanted to use a scale in the artwork that would invite the viewer into a subject matter that might feel intimidating to non-scientists.
I chose a grid format in all the Standard Model pieces not only to visually anchor the work, but to hint at the graphs used when analyzing data. The works include the history of particle discoveries and the measurements necessary for these observations. I’ve created a visual metaphor for books, but these books do not look completely finished, suggesting the unfinished business of scientific inquiry.
The Standard Model has been hugely successful in predicting particles including the Higgs Boson, the existence of which was experimentally confirmed in 2012. However, physicists know the Standard Model does not tell the complete story. In “Discoveries,” a short version of the Standard Model equation looks provisionally attached to the piece. I am expressing the idea that the Standard Model may have to be substantially changed due to new discoveries. Because I don’t want my art to become obsolete, I left room for the undiscovered particles in the center of this piece.
And hidden in every piece is a reference to the Higgs Boson, that master of disguise that eluded detection for over 20 years. If you look at the pieces up close, you can have your own sort of “Where’s Waldo” experience trying to find how I represented the Higgs Particles in the art.
NEUTRINOS: Blending Art and Science
Our universe is permeated with neutrinos — nearly massless, neutral particles that interact so rarely with other matter that trillions of them pass through our bodies each second.
Neutrinos emanate from the earth, from the sun, they arrive from the distant cosmos – and neutrinos are manufactured at Fermilab with sophisticated technology that begins with a bottle of hydrogen. In “Dark Glamour: Neutrinos I,” I used three miles of metallic embroidery floss to portray the billions of particles in the beam created at Fermilab. The constructed curtain falls as an elegant cascade of metallic fibers and suggests a theatrical space: a stage for the presentation of a set of these mysterious particles. Subtle shades of silver, steel, and gold represent the three states of neutrino particles. We don’t understand yet why these particles oscillate between these three states.
In “Dark Glamour: Neutrinos II,” the visual metaphor of a net suggests how detectors capture images of these rarely interacting, elusive particles. The neutrino detector is represented by velvet squares joined by lines of beads in three subtle colors, again to express the dynamic nature of neutrinos. The art borrows techniques used in high fashion to project an image of dark glamour.
To be successful, my projects need a few key ingredients.
First, the artwork must be grounded on a solid scientific foundation. I interview scientists and other staff, tour the experiments, take training, and read deeply. I design my projects as a full immersion experience and out of this scaffolding, I create accessible art that helps explain scientific concepts. This struggle to understand a particular corner of science is a powerful, creative catalyst.
Second, I employ all my training as an artist to make accessible, impactful art. Images can touch people where words cannot. I have only a few brief seconds to snag the attention of a viewer. It’s also important that the artwork stands on its own so even if someone is not interested in science can enjoy it. The last ingredient is passion. There are strict rules defining what activities qualify as scientific research but before an experiment begins and after it’s completed there is plenty of room for emotional connection. My goal is to lure in science phobic people with handsome art, then blow their minds with cool science.
One of the most powerful lessons I learned with this residency is that I am not afraid to learn any kind of science…even High Energy Physics. Both science and art are expressions of our humanity. Scientists have been alone with the facts for long enough. It’s time to invite poets, novelists, playwrights, singers’ artists and others to help amplify the message that science is an elegant necessity of modern life. With the help of the APS outreach grant, I have been able to bring this message to over 30 science outreach events and art galleries and publish dozens of articles.
I want others to know what I’ve learned that you don’t need a PhD to fall in love with physics.
Lindsay Olson is Fermi National Accelerator’s first Artist-in-Residence and taught in the fashion studies department at Columbia College Chicago for over 20 years. She is known for creating unusual residencies including a stint as the resident artist at Chicago’s Metropolitan Water Reclamation District. Her work has been featured in Scientific American, the Chicago Tribune, SciArt in America, and the Chicago Artist Resource. She has shown her work in many galleries in the US and internationally including Germany, Vienna, Athens, and Geneva. Her work is now touring both the US and in Europe. Photo Credits: All images of the artist’s work and Fermilab: Reidar Hahn for Fermilab