Thursday, March 22, 2012

Finding Problems: Solving Problems

Scientists and artists share in common an important activity. They both focus on finding and solving problems. Often these problems seem to appear out of nowhere.

Flowering Plum

As a scientist I look at nature and see questions that need answering. Non-scientists are not likely to see nature in the same way. Where I see dimension, others may see only surface. Where I observe patterns other people may see disorganization or more likely, nothing at all. This is not because I have special powers of observation but because I've trained myself to look at nature this way. I try to get my students to observe in the same way.

Elm flowers

In the patterns of nature I find properties, characteristics that circumscribe natural systems. These characteristics are often universal in nature. Sometimes they are unique. Properties are facts about nature. The structure of wood, the behavior of a flower, the activities of a leaf. These are properties.


By analyzing properties, or rather, while I am coming to understand properties, processes unfold. Processes are to me the way nature puts itself together. How does something branch? How do substances move? Why does one system affect another in this particular way?


This is how I go about life as a scientist. It's exciting because it's impossible to get bored. Problems emerge from patterns. Problems get fleshed out and dimension is added to them as properties are discerned. I start to solve the problems by studying process.


The bottom line I think is that I have perceived something in nature, something that's right in front of us all the time, something that "normal" people have not perceived.

Composite Composites

So how does this connect to art? As I engage in making art I see in front of me a piece of clay. Or a blank canvas. I "see" or perceive something in that clay, I'm not sure how or why. It's not that I see or work toward the "finished product." Instead, I start to arrange the clay in patterns that make sense to me. These patterns reflect and are subject to the properties of the clay. It seems to me that if I fight the properties I lose the patterns, which get muddled in my own "design."

Clay Mud

To me the process of making art is the solution to the problem. The problem is always abstract, something that may be meaningful only to me, but something that reflects the universal properties and patterns of the clay.


As I write this it seems that the activity of finding and solving problems is something frustrating. But frustration is not the key. I think it's the "happy-making" of delving into the material world, imbuing it with meaning, and finding the shape and dimensions of that meaning.

Me and My Tower

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