The pursuits of science and art have a lot in common, as was amply in evidence one day last summer when sculptor Carolyn Henne visited the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory. For that afternoon, it became the National High Magnetic Field Museum.
While touring the lab’s unique instruments and facilities, the Florida State University art professor also viewed a kind of “found art” hidden in plain view. On whiteboards depicting the collaborative, creative work of science, Henne saw works of art. Studying them with an artist’s sensibility, she saw echoes of modern masters, including the layering of Nancy Spero, the cryptic markings of Cy Twombly and the symbolism of Elizabeth Murray.
The whiteboard is indeed the scientist’s canvas, a place to collaborate and create, to sketch diagrams, equations and graphs using the Fauvist reds, greens, blues and yellows available in his pack of markers.
It doesn’t matter, said Henne, that she might not know the intent behind those bold scribbles; that’s often the case in abstract expressionism and other modern and contemporary styles of art.
“But there’s enough there to allow you to engage, because you know these things have information embedded in them. Now, whether or not I can pull that particular information out, probably that will never happen. But I can be interested in it in a more visual way.”
Like many museum masterpieces, observed Henne, the whiteboards display the “mark making” artists use to work through issues and communicate that process to others.
“Mark making is all designed to move yourself closer to some sort of solved problem or answer to a question. Scientists do that and artists do that. … It can be done with a brush, it can be done sculpturally, it can be etched into metal, or (it can be) this kind of mark making, which is just reflecting and communicating thought and moving through an idea.”
Scientists use other tools to record ideas: lab notebooks, image processing software and, of course, PowerPoint. Still, there is something unique about the scale, physicality and erasability of a whiteboard. It invites collaboration and expands thinking in ways pages and computer screens can’t.
“It’s faster and it’s bigger and it’s easier to be animated,” noted National MagLab physicist William Coniglio, one of the artist-scientists Henne spoke with on her visit.