Art Inspired by Materials Science

Art Inspired by Materials Science

Author: Vera Koester, Regina Valluzzi

In an amazing career, Dr. Regina Valluzzi has come from materials sciences at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, USA, via a nanotech start-up to visual art without ever leaving science. Today she enjoys talking with people about science topics that would not interest them without her art.


When did your interest in science begin?

When I was around six or seven, I initially became interested in mathematics, and then in things one could do with mathematics. This led me to science. I became interested in materials science at MIT. I had selected MIT because I wasn’t really sure whether I preferred math, physics, chemistry or perhaps some other field. Materials science captured my interest because it is a central science that touches on many other disciplines. Materials science and chemistry each provide a good background to go out and explore the sciences through interdisciplinary collaborations.


How did you decide to move from science to art?/How did you get started?

I have always had a foot in each world. My father was a frustrated artist, and I learned a lot about art history, artists and how to make art without ever realizing that my experience was not typical. I started focusing on my own art more seriously while studying at MIT. At the time, MIT was an interesting place for art. On the one hand, there were very few artists among the other students, and also very few people were even aware or interested in visual art. But simultaneously, MIT was just starting up the List Center with spectacular exhibits on campus and they had a Science + Art master’s program and installation artists’ residencies becoming a significant presence on campus. I think the combination of missing the art-rich environment of my home in New York and then finding all of these new ideas at MIT that included art and science sparked something in me.

Towards the end of my undergraduate degree, I made a conscious decision to give science my undivided attention for some years and see what happened. I had a productive career in the sciences and got to see and understand a variety of things I would never have known about otherwise. After starting a venture capital (VC)-funded nanotech company that did not survive the economic crash of 2008, I started doing some consulting. I had the idea that I could split my time between consulting and art, but the art started demanding more of my time and attention. I think my temperament is better suited to art.


What connections do you see between your work as a scientist and your work as an artist?

There are similarities between the sciences and the arts on a number of levels. For one, both science and art are profoundly creative endeavors. In the sciences, we seek to expand the edges of human knowledge and to understand things that nobody has understood before. Even if a scientist is doing a modest set of experiments that incrementally increases our understanding of the world, he or she is still standing right on the edge of what we know and probing the unknown. To probe the unknown successfully takes a special kind of intellectual courage coupled with methodological discipline.

Artists who are trying to create original and culturally relevant works are creating culture rather than knowledge. In the arts, we seek to push on the edges of human understanding of ourselves and to probe the emergent properties of human-ness. An artist doing highly original work also requires a special kind of intellectual courage coupled with techniques and methodologies that allow him or her to successfully create and to communicate with the rest of the world.

In my own case, much of my work involves a fusion of my artistic aspirations and my science-informed experiences. I have spent most of my life seeing “science things” often with the aid of complex instruments. My visual experience is quite different from most people’s. This experience forms my aesthetic in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

In addition, many of the topics and ideas that fascinate me as art subjects have to do with things that fascinated me in science. Where a more typically trained artist might draw inspiration from the wildflowers on a hill near his home, I might find myself thinking of statistical mechanical lattice models for order to disorder transitions in materials. Or thinking about all of the choices made in distilling a complex data set and theory down to a simple coherent scientific diagram. These ideas and visualizations are my “hillsides”, my “still life of fruit”, and so forth. I am painting the things most familiar to me.


Is there anything you miss from your time in the lab?

I miss having a lab! I miss having a fume hood to mix up chemicals and I miss putting things into the X-ray diffractometer after hours, just to see the diffraction patterns emerge. I don’t miss being unable to do an experiment because the equipment was having problems, which is a common occurrence when the lab is full of very sophisticated and high-maintenance equipment.


What is your creative process like?

I usually have a general idea of both the subject matter and the techniques I want to use before I start working. I like to set up little experiments with the materials on the canvas. These experiments might involve changing the paint viscosity to see how it wets and spreads, and to see how the pigment particles agglomerate as they fall out of suspension. Or perhaps there are some interesting diffusion experiments with different types of paint and media, or novel materials that can be incorporated. I usually have some expectations for the results of these paint experiments, but there are also always surprises. Reacting to those surprises and using them to refine both the look and the subject-relevance of the painting (or drawing) is a major part of my process.


How do you choose the subjects of your artwork?

I usually choose subjects from topics that have always fascinated me, especially if they are difficult to visualize in more typical scientific communication and teaching. Sometimes I choose topics from friends’ research. I have good friends in optics, thermal analysis, and other areas of science, and my life partner is a theoretical nuclear and particle physicist by training. Those ideas also find their way into my science-themed art.


What is the best part about creating art?/What is most challenging?

I like results, so for me the best part of creating art is seeing how everything comes together in a finished piece. The most difficult and challenging part is often getting everything to come together in a manner that seems complete. I am getting better at recognizing when pieces are finished, but that was challenging, too, for a number of years.


Has your style changed over the years?

Yes. My style evolves as I introduce new materials into my art and explore the properties of the materials I am currently using. Oddly enough, my artistic style seems somewhat driven by materials science considerations.


What have been your greatest artistic and scientific successes?

It’s difficult to say what I’d consider my greatest successes. Like many people, my career has been built on a number of incremental small successes. Each one seemed significant at the time. Scientifically, I am most proud of the work I did using peptide models to model the types of order in collagen-based materials. I also discovered a novel chiral stationary phase for chromatography, but it was never fully commercialized.

Artistically, I think the most satisfying recognition I’ve had to date was having two of my abstract scientific works on the covers of magazines with pretty high circulations. “Archimedes Chiral” was on the cover of the Mathematical Association of America’s membership magazine Focus. “Asterisms” was on the cover of Natural History Magazine, the membership magazine for the American Museum of Natural History, New York, NY, USA. Those were both nice recognition of my work and it was also nice that other people could see the subject matter in my art.

In terms of a completed art piece as an accomplishment, I think my inorganic chemistry/molecular quantum mechanics-themed painting “Density of States” is one of the pieces that I consider a big success. I believe that it successfully communicates its subject matter on a variety of levels, but it also works very well as art. “Density of States” also contains a number of painting experiments that I had tried for the very first time.


What has been your biggest influence/motivation?

I think a major influence and motivation for my science inspired art has been understanding the power art has to communicate ideas and subjects engagingly, even ideas that people normally find obtuse and intimidating. When I first started creating paintings and drawings with science-derived content and inspiration, I didn’t tell people about the science I’d snuck in, because I didn’t want to scare away my audience. Students and people interested in science or somehow connected to someone in the sciences would come up to me and become very excited because they recognized the sneaky science influences. When I decided to be much more open about the fact that there’s science in that art, I found people asking questions about science and trying to understand topics that normally would not interest most people. I think this is a good thing.


What would you like to be doing ten years from now?

I would like to be doing art, but to be established enough to focus on larger more research and resource intensive projects. I’ve been enamored of fiber optical materials for a while. I see a lot of potential for sensitive fiber optical light guides used in art to transmit light and optical information from one part of a painting to another. Or even to communicate lighting information between art pieces through the use of focusing optics. I realize that there are a lot of decorative fiber optic applications that involve pumping bright light from a light-emitting diode (LED) or bulb or other strong source to a fairly distant location where you get little glowing points. However, I’ve noticed that light guides will also pick up and transmit much subtler differences in ambient light and shadow.

In ten years I’d like to be exploring these materials and ideas in really big pieces, sets of related works, and installations. And I’d also love a lab attached to my studio, but that’s probably more of a dream.


Thank you very much for the interview.

Dr. Regina ValluzziRegina Valluzzi received her BS in humanities (visual art minor) and her BS in material science from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, MA, USA, in 1989, and earned her PhD in polymer science from the University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass Amherst), MA, USA, in 1997. After having started a venture capital funded nanotech start-up and working for Akzo Chemicals, Dobbs Ferry, NY, USA, and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories, Cold Spring Harbor, NY, USA, as well as as a consultant, Valluzzi started working as a self-representing artist. She also teaches Tufts summer session course in polymer physical chemistry for deaf students, organized by Professor Peggy Cebe.

Galleries covering the work of Regina Valluzzi include The Art Nook Gallery and G19 Gallery both in Rockport, MA, USA. Valluzzi’s work is in private collections in the US, UK, Germany, Canada, Japan, Taiwan, China, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Bulgaria, and Malta. “Nano Night Music” is on loan to the Materials Science Department of MIT (pending purchase, when it will become part of MIT’s collection).


Selected Awards

  • Best in Show (1 of 2), The Gallery at 100 Market Street, Portsmouth, NH, USA, “Un-Themed and Varied”, 2013
  • Juror’s Choice Attleboro Arts Museum, Attleboro, MA, USA, member’s show 2012
  • Honorable Mention at the SMART Science and Art Festival 2011, Los Alamos, NM, USA
  • Nano Science and Technology Institutes Early Stage Company Award, 2005
  • 2006 Mass High Tech “10 Women to Watch”

Selected Publications

  • Startup offers Netflix-like subscription mail model for art, Boston Business Journal 2013. Link
  • H.-J. Jin, J. Park, V. Karageorgiou, U,-J. Kim, R. Valluzzi, P. Cebe, D. L. Kaplan, Water-Stable silk films with reduced β-sheet content, Adv. Funct. Mater. 2005, 15(8); 1241–1247. DOI: 10.1002/adfm.200400405
  • R. P. Guertin, R. Valluzzi, T. E. Haas, D. Pochan, Magnetically complexed tissue-mimicking peptides, J. Appl. Phys. 2005, 97, 10M521. DOI: 10.1063/1.1857751
  • R. Valluzzi, D. L. Kaplan, Sequence Specific Liquid Crystallinity in Thick Films of Model Collagen-like Polyhexapeptides, Macromolecules 2003, 36 (10), 3580–3588. DOI: 10.1021/ma0340659
  • Lajos Balogh, Regina Valluzzi, Kenneth S. Laverdure, Samuel P. Gido, Gary L. Hagnauer, Donald A. Tomalia, Formation of silver and gold dendrimer nanocomposites, J. Nanoparticle Res. 1999, 1(3), 353–368. DOI: 10.1023/A:1010060404024


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