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Math and Light, Tied Up in Knots
CHESTERTOWN, MD—In “Knots+Light,” a SANDBOX installation on display in the lobby of the Gibson Center for the Arts through April 27, two Washington College professors make art from the sculptural and mathematical manipulation of light. Laura J. Eckelman, who teaches lighting design in the drama department, and Heather M. Russell, mathematics professor and knot theorist, twisted sculptural knots from thick wire and then lit them against a backdrop of translucent film to explore their two-dimensional shadows.
SANDBOX is an initiative funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and dedicated to interdisciplinary collaboration merging art and science. The Knots+Light collaboration was a SANDBOX Sandstorm, a smaller experimental event that brings together talents from seemingly disparate disciplines.
Inspiration for Knots+Light struck while Eckelman and Russell were discussing their classes. Eckelman was teaching orthographic projection, the representation of 3-D objects on paper, to her theater design class. “A big part of design [for theater] is communication, a lot of which is done by drawing,” she said. This reminded Russell of concepts she explores in her study of knots in the math field, where two knots can appear the same from certain perspectives, but have essential differences in their structures. For Knots+Light, the two professors considered both the aesthetics and mathematical theory of their sculptures. For example, one part of the installation features eight mathematically different knots that cast identical shadows. Another structure casts two different shadows from the same 3-D object.
Eckelman also played with colored light, which mixes differently than the pigment colors artists most often use. Her lighting creates colored shadows as well as a pure white cast made through the mixture of three colored lights. Because of the natural light flooding into the Underwood Lobby, Knots+Light is best viewed at night.
Both collaborators came to the project feeling that their fields could use more representation. “Anything that makes math more accessible makes me happy,” says Russell, a 2003 graduate of Washington College who holds a doctorate in mathematics.
“Heather is a mathematics ambassador,” adds Eckelman.
In Eckelman’s field, “There is language that’s accessible to describe setting or costume in the theater,” she says. “But I think people are afraid to talk about light.”
Eckelman and Russell will be giving a talk about their Sandstorm project at 7:00 pm Tuesday, April 21, in the Underwood Lobby. Light refreshments will be provided, and the event is free and open to the public.
—Catalina Righter ’17