Answering a question

“How did you think of that?” is a question I get fairly frequently when I show people my Xtra-Dimensions art pieces. The short answer of “I just did it” is not much of an explanation, but I don’t have a better one.  The Xtra-Dimensions concept was devised as a solution to a problem: how to present pictures in a way that conveys dimensions and patterns that are missing from a flat print.  Why I came up with it might be explained by the following story.

In high school outside Boston, I thought I wanted to be a mathematician or an engineer because they both seemed so logical and understandable to me. But my last semester, I took chemistry and I was hooked, even though three days before my graduation I almost burned down our dorm when an unauthorized “experiment” went awry (home-made gunpowder for a model rocket…).

As an undergraduate at Harvard, I majored in organic chemistry and started a career path that most would consider very monothematic: graduate school at Stanford, professor at UC Berkeley, all in organic and bioorganic chemistry.

However, I’ve never forgotten that the class I enjoyed the most during my 4 years as an undergraduate was “Fine Arts-13”, a two-semester course devoted to the history and development of artistic expression over the centuries.   I needed the course for a breadth requirement and before I took it my senior year, I didn’t think it would be that interesting – squishy and subjective and very non-scientific after all.   But I found that I did “have an eye,” that I could see beyond the surface, and perhaps more importantly, that what I got from a piece of art could change as I thought about it. It was too late to change careers, of course, although years later it did occur to me that if I hadn’t been a chemistry professor I probably would have been an architect (math and engineering and art!).

Many people think that chemistry, even science in general, is “analytical” in contrast to “creative” – left brain-versus-right brain nonsense. But my research in organic and bioorganic chemistry was completely dependent on thinking up new stuff: designing molecules that had never existed before and figuring out how to synthesize them in the lab.  So it had the engineering angle (how to make them), the analytical side (did they behave as I imagined), as well as the artistic (visualizing something unique).

One of the skills I’ve prided myself on is an ability to think in 3-dimensions.  While we all perceive things as 3-dimensional in our everyday world, we don’t often have to envisage something that we can’t see (e.g., a molecule), somehow make it 3-dimensional in our mind, then turn it around or upside down – even flip part of it left to right.  And then think about what might change if we did!  Not to brag too much, but I am good at that.

Maybe the connection is tenuous, but even from the days of Mighty Mouse (I know that dates me!), I had always dreamed how fun it would be if I could fly – to zip up and down and back and forth – using all 3 dimensions.  So it’s not surprising that as soon as I no longer needed parental permission, I gravitated (pun intended…) to skydiving, a sport where you can get that sensation.  Yes, when you jump out of an airplane, you only go down, but when you jump out with a bunch of friends, you not only can move back and forth relative to the others by maneuvering your arms and legs, you can fall slower (go up!) or faster (go down) than they do.  So it feels just like Mighty Mouse must have felt.

Sky- & scuba diving.jpg

While I don’t skydive anymore (after 10 years and about 1,300 jumps), I still get my 3-D sport kicks scuba diving. One moves more slowly underwater, to be sure, but that freedom of motion in all dimensions is still there.

Outside of sport, even outside of chemistry during my academic career, a feel for 3-D inspired me to design several pieces of furniture for our home: a couple of dining room tables, side tables and a coffee table – even a sofa that I still love.  And my suppressed urge to be an architect surfaced when I designed the remodel of our weekend home in Lake Tahoe.  Part of that remodel involved creating a wall installation – a pattern of leaves turning into butterflies in clusters up the wall. The leaves and butterflies were cut out of – you guessed it: aluminum cans, then mounted off the wall on pins for a 3-D effect.

Sofa, table, wall.jpg

So there you have it – a story that may explain how a math and science guy is trying to make a new career creating Xtra-Dimensions art pieces!