The Way Things Work: Photography, Painting, and Particles in the Land of Enchantment - 1/8/2016

Today's post was written by Joshua Finnell. He is the scholarly communications librarian in the J. Robert Oppenheimer Research Library at Los Alamos National Laboratory and serves on the board of Make Santa Fe.

This past summer, we packed up our belongings in Ohio and headed west towards the oldest state capital city in the United States. My wife accepted an offer to teach creative writing at the Santa Fe University of Art & Design and I accepted a position as the scholarly communications librarian at Los Alamos National Laboratory. For the first time in our lives, we would find our professional environments in stark contrast between the sciences and humanities. Back in Ohio, I was a humanities librarian at a small liberal arts college while Anne was finishing her PhD and teaching English and creative writing. Our dinner conversations easily flowed together as we let our sweet potatoes and green beans grow cold talking about literature and what new titles I should buy for the library’s fiction collection.

Though our educational and professional backgrounds were firmly seeded in the humanities, our upbringing was shaped and sometimes overshadowed by science and engineering. My wife’s parents are both audiologists in St. Louis, and she spent her childhood surrounded by conversations about audiograms and cochlear implants. I grew up in Peoria, Illinois, the headquarters of Caterpillar, the world’s leading manufacturer of construction equipment. While my wife’s childhood home was abuzz with talk of double-blind, placebo controlled studies, my entire town’s livelihood depended on the continual discovery of engineering breakthroughs. We both grew up with Neil Ardley and David Macaulay’s The Way Things Work on our bookshelf. We both found our way to the humanities through the prism of the sciences. We would eventually meet as undergraduates in the liberal arts curriculum at Washington University in St. Louis.


As a writer, my wife draws inspiration not only from nature but also scientific discovery. Even her approach to writing is compared to that of a scientist by her colleagues as she tests empirical evidence against the knowable and unknowable of humanness. My own chosen profession of librarianship derives from a fascination in the general as opposed to the specialized. There hasn’t been a single trip in the last few years we haven’t prepared for by reading about the historical, literary, artistic and geological background of our destination. Though written well before our births, we both heeded C.P. Snow’s warning in The Two Cultures that the splintering of the sciences and humanities is a major obstacle to solving the world’s problems. It comes as no surprise that one of our few creative collaborations reimagined human diseases as a manifestation of physiological, emotional, environmental and existential deficiencies.

Working 40 miles apart, separated by desert and mountains, and working in seemingly diametrically opposed disciplines, we find ourselves stitching our interdisciplinary worldviews together. After work, in the quiet of our small townhouse under the shadow of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains we pore over technical reports from the lab, a compilation of actinide neutron nuclear data or a NASA manual detailing magnetic shielding in space. In Basin and Range, John McPhee wrote about his fascination with the language of science. “I used to sit in class and listen to the terms come floating down the room like paper airplanes. Geology was called a descriptive science, and with its pitted outwash plains and drowned rivers, its hanging tributaries and starved coastlines, it was nothing if not descriptive.” In much the same way, the language of physics rolls off the page in fragments of spiked excitement and unintelligible nomenclature. “The slope of the sinusoidal rolloff curve in db per octave is equal to 6n!”

Returning to our childhood instincts, we scan the reports for illustrations, read particular passages out loud to each other, and create characters and short stories from inscrutable titles and text. At the same time, these artifacts of science spark conversations that move towards the existence of dark matter and implications of nuclear waste on the environment.

Of course, in the southwest, we certainly aren’t the first to find inspiration in this nexus of two cultures. As the birthplace of the Atomic Age, Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Manhattan Project have captured the attention of many artists in New Mexico, manifesting in artwork focused on the environmental, political, social, ethical, and philosophical aspects of the world’s first atomic bomb. What my wife and I have discovered here is that much like our childhoods, we are surrounded by science, technology, engineering, and mathematics while immersing ourselves in a world of art and humanities.


Shortly after arriving in New Mexico, Patrick Nagatani, turned his attention and camera on the nuclear activities in New Mexico. Nuclear Enchantment, a collection of forty images, was the culmination of a five-year project exploring the spiritual depths of and environmental impact of the atomic age.

Patrick Nagatani, Japanese Children's Day Carp Banners, Paguate Village, Jackpile Mine UraniumTailings, Laguna Pueblo Reservation, New Mexico, 1990.
Silver-dye bleach print 20 x 24 in.Collection of the New Mexico Museum of Art 
Gift of anonymous donor, 1997 (1997.61.4)

“In my work I intentionally show a leveled world. Polluted skies, contaminated earth, nuclear explosions, fantastic happenings are all seen under the same light (regardless of the effect they have on people that are actually experiencing such events, for whom the events are not images, but occupy their moment); natural, social, mythic, physical, and psychological experiences are all leveled as images.”

Judy Chicago, best known for The Dinner Party, and her husband Donald Woodman would also explore the impact of the nuclear industry on New Mexico’s environment in the Nuclear Waste(d) series. Woodman began his career in New Mexico as a scientific photographer at the Sacramento Peak Solar Observatory. Through a feminist lens, Chicago re-envisioned Woodman’s photographs of nuclear facilities and test sites with the violence enacted on the environment by a historically masculine science.

Judy Chicago, Eureka, or What’s a Mother For? (from the series Nuclear Waste(d)), 1989.  
Sprayed acrylic, oil and photography on photolinen 16 x 20 in.
Collection of the New Mexico Museum of Art. Gift of Judy Chicago and Donald Woodman, 2011 (2011.11.7)

“I believe in art that is connected to real human feeling, that extends itself beyond the limits of the art world to embrace all people who are striving for alternatives in an increasingly dehumanized world. I am trying to make art that relates to the deepest and most mythic concerns of human kind and I believe that, at this moment of history, feminism is humanism.”

Christine Taylor Patten, who cared for Georgia O’Keeffe towards the end of her life, drew inspiration in her work from the commonalities between the artistic and scientific definition of “looking.” In her micros series, Patten created 2,000 (each one denoting a year) crow quill and ink pieces that evolve from a single dot in space into referential patterns and movements.

Christine Taylor Patten, Tangent #2 (535A.D.-T-2), 2007.
Crowquill/Pelikan ink on Arches paper 9 3/4 x 10 7/8 inches.  
Collection of the New Mexico Museum of Art.
Purchase with funds from the Macquarie Group Foundation, 2012 (2012.26.2)

“Artists share with scientists a compulsion to know, a deep longing for clarity and sense and communication. We look at the same things with different eyes, and fill in different parts of the vacuum, describing the world from each perspective, sometimes from the head, and often from the heart, or the soul.”

Patten, Chicago, Woodman, and Nagatani are but a few of the many artists who found inspiration in the scientific landscape of New Mexico. However, the “artistic method” as opposed to the “scientific method” is less defined and tends to include various modes and methods of discovery, across disciplines and mediums, in the act of creation. Science has provided a rich tapestry of idea for artists to remix, reimagine, and re-envision. However, is the relationship reciprocal in the 21st century, specialized world of the sciences? Mae Jemison, an astronaut and dancer, has spoken passionately about the need for scientists to enhance their education with the arts, but is she is merely an outlier?

Perhaps taking a cue from Patten, Johanna Kieniewicz, writing for At the Interface: Where Art and Science Meet, challenged her scientific colleagues to think about how artists can help clarify and reshape scientific narratives. In Why Scientists Should Care About Art she writes, “Artists examine problems from different angles and engage with information in a different way from scientists. Some might see this as a deficiency, and to be fair, you wouldn’t want to conduct science in an un-scientific way. However, I would argue that particularly in the area of scientific visualization, there is a great deal to be gained for scientists who engage with artists.” As the information age eclipses the atomic age in the early 21st century, the scientific world finds itself awash in a data deluge. Not only would significant increases in data creation be difficult to manage, it would also prove challenging to communicate as data sets expanded from gigabytes to exabytes. As a corollary, national laboratories are turning to artists to help stimulate interactions and communication among scientists, artists, and general public.

Lindsay Olson, Illuminated Book: Beam Line (from the series Art and the Quantum World), 
DMC thread and collage on paper 30" x 22"

In 2014, Fermilab launched the laboratory’s artist-in-residence program. This unique opportunity allows an artist to work on-site at the lab and interact with scientists and researchers in their own labs. Lindsay Olson, the lab’s first artist-in-residence, collaborated with physicists Don Lincoln in creating Art and the Quantum World, a visualization of the subatomic realm of quarks and leptons. Needless to say, the scientific community took notice. A piece would appear in Scientific American that same year entitled, “What’s an Artist Doing at Fermi Lab?”

When I showed the article to my wife, she replied, “What’s an artist NOT doing at Los Alamos National Laboratory?” I concurred. Yet, as we reflect on our experience in our new city and its proximity to and influence from the scientific enterprise that surrounds it, we agree that calling Santa Fe home is a residency in and of itself, one that incorporates the creativity inherent in both the arts and sciences.

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