Sunday, November 11, 2018

By Emily Nelson, Iowa Now.

The walls of Yannick Meurice’s office are lined with prints—his own as well as reproductions of those by artists such as famed University of Iowa printmaker Mauricio Lasansky. Below the art hangs a chalkboard covered in equations and scientific notes.

A similar fascination with the intersection of art and science is what the professor in the UI Department of Physics and Astronomy hopes to spark in students taking his first-year seminar, The Artistic Side of Science: Computing and Patterns in Nature. The class allows new students to use existing scientific computer codes to generate artistic prints.

“I find making art relaxing,” Meurice says. “I hope science students develop an appreciation for visual art and find that it’s something they can do. And for the student who has an artistic impulse, they find they like learning about computing and science by this process.”

Meurice is in his third year teaching the course, which includes students from various disciplines, from art and art history to computer science and engineering.

“Students who might not meet or otherwise get to know each other are moving around, going to different buildings, sharing resources, and helping each other,” Meurice says.

Along with collaborating with Meurice, a computational particle physicist, the students also experiment with printmaking techniques with Anita Jung, professor and area head in printmaking in the UI School of Art and Art History, and Deanne Wortman, program manager of Virginia A. Myers NEXUS of Engineering and the Arts and Engineering Student Services in the UI College of Engineering.

Students start the semester altering images using computer code that Meurice developed for his research. The students pick an image they want to work with, from selfies to original pieces of art. Meurice says this often is the most intimidating part of the class, but it shouldn’t be.

“They need zero knowledge coming in,” Meurice says. “All you need to do is change a number here and there in existing code to obtain interesting variations, such as changing the contrast or temperature to make the dark pixels cluster. You just try empirically to see how it works. They are often surprised to discover the joy of programming.”

Katie Noble says the class seemed tailor-made for her. The first-year computer science student from Freeport, Illinois, says the computer language (Python) they used to alter their images was one she was using in a computer science course, and it was interesting to use it in a different way. She says she’s also enjoyed meeting students from different disciplines and working in buildings she maybe wouldn’t otherwise.

“This is a learning experience for all of us,” Noble says. “And at the end, you have this finished artwork. It’s a cool experience.”

Meurice says he started using this method to reproduce the texture of a printmaking technique known as aquatint. The technique was famously used by Francisco Goya, and Meurice takes his students to the UI Stanley Museum of Art to see the artist’s works in person.

The students then begin the process of creating their own prints from the altered images, starting with transferring the image to a solarplate—a steel plate covered in a polymer that is sensitive to ultraviolet light, such as that from the sun. Students place a transparent film on which their artwork is printed onto the solarplate, then place it in a UV light box for about a minute. The solarplate is then washed in water, which dissolves the unexposed portions of the plate and leaves grooves that can be filled with ink.

Jung says she likes to remind students that their cellphones have chips that are created similarly to how solarplates are created.

“I think to have them make those connections can be mind-blowing,” Jung says. “They think it’s amazing someone invented that, but it also gets them thinking that they could do that, too. It’s very sophisticated, complex science and technology presented in a really playful, very fun, engaged way.” 

The students then make a trip to the printmaking lab in the Visual Arts Building, where Jung shows them how to coat their solarplates with ink, cover them with paper, and print with a press.

“I really enjoy having students who are self-proclaimed non-artists come into the building and work,” Jung says. “Some of them get really excited and into it and are interested in doing more.”

Finally, the students make a second print using a revolutionary foil printmaking process developed by former UI Professor Virginia Myers. This is done with the help of Wortman on the Iowa Foil Printer in the Seamans Center for the Engineering Arts and Sciences.

Noble says she once dreamed of being an animator for Pixar, has interned at a hometown architecture company, and loves working with computers.

“This class is perfect because it’s an equal balance of what I love, and you don’t find a lot of classes that can support those,” Noble says. “I’m still trying to figure out what I want to do, but I know I want to incorporate both, so this class has been helpful because I can try out both things I love.”

Throughout the semester, Meurice and his students discussed whether computers can be trained to produce artwork. Meurice wrote a program that generates a random picture, to which the students assign a grade. The program then generates new pictures based on each previous grade.

“It’s interesting to hear them discuss what is good and what isn’t good,” Meurice says. “It starts an interesting conversation: Can we replace the artistic impulse with a computer who can figure it out for you?”

Noble says it’s been interesting to think about what is considered art.

“When you look at all the different forms of art—paintings, 3-D sculpture, prints—there’s such a range that, in my opinion, this should also be considered art,” Noble says. “When new forms of art have been introduced in the art world in the past, people were skeptical, but today we look at them and there’s no doubt they are all art.”

The first-year seminar led to an additional collaboration between Meurice and Jung. The two applied for and received a Creative Matches grant to create a series of four-layer prints using some of the processes from the class and others developed during the project. The grant also allowed them to hire an undergraduate assistant, Amie Aulwes, who, among other things, helped them research inks and solarplates. Their works were featured in an exhibit this fall at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa.

“The nice thing is this really came from teaching this course,” Meurice says. “I’ve learned a lot through this. These are great resources that we have at the University of Iowa.”

What Meurice and Jung did with their project wasn’t that different from the students in the first-year seminar.

“These first-year seminars are all about students making discoveries and engaging with the idea of studying and simultaneously researching,” Jung says. “What does it mean to do scientific research, and what does it mean to do creative research? This course tries to find that pivot and bring those things together.”