Science and art collide happily in Art of Science

The idea was simple: Bring together two of Memphis’ most interesting communities – its artists and its scientists – with an event celebrating both. Now in its fourth year, the low-budget, high-impact exhibit continues to build an enthusiastic audience and attract national attention.

When Heather Smallwood started exploring Memphis as a transplant from Washington state, two aspects of the city struck her with exclamation points: The science! The arts!

Science was a dazzling part of daily life for Smallwood at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, where she is part of a renowned corps of scientists working to rid the world of cancer, sickle cell and countless other diseases. And at events like the monthly South Main Trolley Night, she discovered a vibrant community of Memphis artists reimagining the world in their own way – with new combinations of color, texture and form.

But something was missing. Smallwood wanted a way to enjoy these two communities and their contributions at the same time.

That simple desire gave rise to Art of Science – an innovatively low-budget, high-impact exhibit that has attracted national attention and is opening its fourth annual incarnation on Friday, Sept. 26.
Nikkila Carroll holds part of her work at the Hyde Gallery
For the exhibit, St. Jude scientists are paired with local artists to use images and insights from research as inspiration for paintings, sculpture or even performance art.

“Displaying science as art is not unusual,” Smallwood pointed out, noting Princeton University among the institutions that exhibit compelling images of cellular structures and other scientific subject matter. “The science itself is aesthetically pleasing, but we wanted a remix of it by the artists.”

The Memphis exhibit attracted 3,000 visitors in 2013, including scientists from New York City who went on to organize a similar show.  It has also found an audience among local educators, who are starting to make Art of Science a field-trip destination.

Organizers say the idea gained traction for several reasons.

First, St. Jude saw it as an exciting way to promote the groundbreaking work that St. Jude scientists do. People familiar with the hospital’s success in treating children with cancer are often less aware of the research that enables that treatment. It is part of the institution’s mission to do educational outreach.

Second, the premise appealed to scientists and artists on a personal and professional level.

“The scientists at St. Jude have been on board from the beginning,” said Marie Morfouace, a St. Jude scientist and president of the Art of Science organization. She added  that the unveiling of the art is “like Christmas” for them, making them more eager to participate each year. “It’s amazing the quantity of images we receive each year, with people telling us all of the time, ‘Oh! I have a new image.’”
Jenna David installs her work at the Hyde Gallery
Local artists loved the idea, as well, says Melissa Farris, who joined the Art of Science team as exhibit curator in 2012.
“Part of what makes Art of Science cool is that a lot of times it inspires the artists to work outside their normal areas, Farris said. “It excites the artists to stretch themselves in that way.”

For example, in 2013 one of the most exciting pieces in the exhibit came from Matthew Hasty, who is best known locally for painting rural Southern scenes. Inspired by a magnified microscopic image from St. Jude scientist Sharon Frase, Hasty created an otherworldly interior landscape where mitochondria are creatures generating the power of life.

Artist Alex Paulus and St. Jude scientist Stacey Ogden have participated in Art of Science each year since its launch, but this is their first year as partners.

Ogden studies how cells communicate with one another to determine how they will develop – how big they will grow, how fast they will reproduce, what purpose they will serve. Progress in this research could help prevent cells from mutating into brain tumors.

Paulus was drawn to the idea that cells could have a mind of their own and become whatever they wanted to be – a tooth, a hair, a finger, a thumb. He used that imagery to create an abstracted collage that requires viewers to look through a gridded pattern to see what’s developing inside.
Mary Jo Kariminia installs her interactive art work
“I wanted to create something to make the viewer sort of act the way a scientist does,” Paulus said.

A third element contributing to the success of Art of Science, Smallwood said, has been the openness in Memphis to try something untried, to celebrate something uncelebrated.

 “I think the arts and science are both sort of the unsung anchors of the city,” Smallwood said. “And bringing them together has really been fun for us. But I also think people are approachable in Memphis … it allows for new things to develop. I feel like Memphis always has this simmering feeling where something is always just bubbling up, and seeds are well-sown here.”

What:  Art of Science 2014 Exhibit: Exploring the Beauty of Science and the Power of Art. Proceeds from art sales go to sustain the event and to contributing artists.

Where: Memphis College of Art’s Hyde Gallery at 477 S. Main.

When: The opening reception is Friday, Sept. 26, 6-9 p.m. The exhibit continues through Friday, Oct. 17. Gallery hours are noon to 5 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday, with extended hours on Trolley Night (the final Friday of each month), 6-9 p.m.

Cost to attend: Free

Learn more on the Art of Science Facebook page, or email [email protected].

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Read more articles by Amy French.

Amy French is a Memphis-born freelance writer and communication consultant who got her start as an award-winning journalist for The Huntsville Times in Alabama and The Charlotte Observer in North Carolina.