Functional Art and Experimental Science

Sometimes insight into the artistic process comes at the most unexpected times.

Sugar skulls: one made by a scientist, one made by an artist, but which is which?

Recently I attended a banquet to celebrate my husband’s graduate school advisor, Blas Cabrera. Dr. Cabrera is a celebrated experimental physicist, professor and person, and there were many fantastic and moving speeches by his colleagues, students, family and friends.

One of the speakers was Dr. Eric Cornell, one of the recipients of the 2001 Nobel Prize for Physics. Dr. Cornell spoke of a time when he was an undergraduate working in Dr. Cabrera’s laboratory, full of promise and excitement, whose talents could have led to many promising careers … he just had to make up his mind.

He made that decision during the development of a new piece of equipment. He described the intense conversations that occurred as the group struggled to find the best way to prove the existence of an elusive theoretical particle. Once a plan was in place, the discussions turned to more mundane topics such as hardware selection. Dr. Cornell described his surprise and delight when a conversation about selecting the right bolts for the project turned out to be just as intense and serious as the more esoteric work that preceded it. He spoke of how exciting it was to consider a career where difficult science and simple mechanics coexisted, and success demanded excellence on all levels.

Now, Dr. Cornell was talking about science, but the experience he described is a main motivator of craftspeople as well. It’s one thing to develop a successful piece of art, one that expresses complex thoughts and philosophies with clarity and desirability. But when that piece of art needs to be functional as well, it adds a whole new layer of difficulty. Some people would rather not be bothered with function, but others thrive on execution.

When I first design a piece, I am fully concerned with the artistic element. I don’t want to miss out on a good idea and I might, so I have to let my mind roam free of constraints, especially the constraint of practicality. Only when I have an idea fully fleshed out on the artistic level do I put my engineering hat on and spend time, a lot of time, working out the logistics. In the process try to alter the original concept as little as possible, which often requires intense decisions. When it comes to enamel, there is a delicate balance between strength and wearability. Not only does the piece need to work, it needs to work for everyone. I don’t mind if a person doesn’t care for something I’ve made because it doesn’t resonate with them aesthetically, but I never want to see someone put down a piece they adore because they physically can’t wear it.

So experimental science and functional art: both extending our limits without losing sight of the nuts and bolts.