What happens when a fiber artist meets a world-renowned mathematician? In a word: mathemalchemy.
In 2019, the mathematician Ingrid Daubechies, who the New York Times dubbed the “godmother of the digital image” because of her work with wavelets and the role that it played in the advancement of image compression technology, visited an art exhibit entitled Time to Break Free. The installation, a quilted, steampunk-inspired sculpture full of fantastical, transformative imagery, was the work of fiber artist Dominique Ehrmann. Seeing the installation made Ingrid wonder whether art could similarly bring the beauty and creativity of mathematics to life. She contacted Dominique, and after much discussion, a collaborative project was born. Over several months, many workshops, and the challenges of a pandemic, the collaborative grew to include 24 core “mathemalchemists” representing a diverse spectrum of expertise. The result is a sensory-rich installation full of fantasy, mathematical history, theorems, illuminating stories of complexity, and even a chipmunk or two.
The artists and mathematicians work in fabric, yarn and string, metal, glass, paper, ceramic, wood, printed plastic, and light; they depict or employ mathematical concepts such as symmetry, topology, optimization, tessellations, fractals, hyperbolic plane, and stereographic projection. Playful constructs include a flurry of Koch snowflakes, Riemann basalt cliffs, and Lebesgue terraces, all named after mathematicians. Additionally, the exhibition pays homage to mathematicians and mathematical ideas from many different origins and backgrounds, ranging from amateur mathematician Marjorie Rice to Fields Medalist and National Academy of Sciences member Maryam Mirzakhani.
Mathemalchemy is on display at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC, from January 24 through June 13, 2022. More information about the exhibit and the collaboration can be found at mathemalchemy.org.