Making Art With Numbers … And Molecular Formulas

Sienna Morris absorbs science and math the way some people suck down Red Bull energy drinks. Her craving is intense, and once she’s taken in some new tidbit of knowledge, it fuels her while she works.

A glow-in-the-dark version of Morris' "Bioluminescence" piece with fireflies. Credit: Sienna Morris

Morris, a Portland, Ore.-based artist, has created a series of pieces that she describes as being “made with science.” This pronouncement, in fact, is what caught my attention while I was strolling through the Portland Saturday Market on a summer vacation to Oregon. Being the geek that I am, I couldn’t pass by a booth adorned with such an advertisement and not investigate. What I found was some wonderfully inventive art done with a technique Morris calls numberism. When viewed from a distance, one of Morris’ pieces might look like a detailed drawing of a cat, but when you move closer, you discover, this is no ordinary cat. It’s Schrödinger’s Cat. And the lines of its fur are made of letters and numbers—the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle drawn over and over to meld together and form the larger piece. Morris says she started out using numberism  in 2008 as a way to draw a four-dimensional moment. Her first piece that was constructed this way, called “Falling To Pieces,” depicts the faces of two lovers about to kiss. The faces are made by mashing together the numbers of the clock; the digits stream away from the edges of the faces and trail off in smoky wisps. This was “a well-lived moment,” in her life, Morris says. She wanted to capture it in space as well as in time. “The numbers are coming in and going out to remind us that time’s constantly changing,” she says. The science and math pieces started about two years after this initial foray into numberism. Morris had been inspired to learn more about the subjects by her husband, Tabulanis, who is a designer and physics enthusiast. Now, a handful of her science art even contains chemistry. In one piece, a woman blows out the flame on a candle, which is constructed from an average molecular formula for paraffin wax (C25H52). In another piece, a little girl examines a jar full of fireflies. The bellies of the insects are drawn with the formula for a luciferin, a compound involved in the bugs’ luminescence. The glow emitting from the fireflies in the artwork is composed of the digits in the speed of light.

"Human Heart," a piece made with science by Morris. Look closely for the hidden gems. Credit: Sienna Morris

This piece, in particular, is about “the awe that science enthusiasts have for the natural world,” Morris says. “Anyone who’s had the bug for math and science [Pun intended? Maybe so.] tends to have a childlike wonder about the universe.” The Portland artist, a life-long learner, says she’s become enthralled by the world of math and science and that she now studies anything in those areas that interests her, no matter how daunting the material. “The way I see it,” she says, “you start with something that’s really cool in the ‘real world’ ” and ask yourself how it works. Then, “you quantify it, nail it down with ‘data,’ and bring it back into the ‘real world’ with an art piece.” Take her most recent artwork, entitled “Human Heart,” which was commissioned by the wife of a cardiologist. To compose the drawing, Morris learned about norepinephrine, cardiac output, stroke volume, and membrane potentials—all part of the mechanics of pumping blood. Numbers, formulas, and symbols related to these concepts are all hidden within the curves of her anatomically drawn human heart.

Zoomed in look at "Human Heart." See if you can pick out the equations for pumping blood or the formula for norepinephrine. Credit: Sienna Morris

"I want to show people that you don't have to be arty OR scientific and mathetical," Morris says. The sujects aren't mutually exclusive, she argues, adding that the old concept of being a right-brained or left-brained thinker should be discarded. "Einstein was a violinist and, clearly, a scientist," she says. "He had a creative mind--he never would've accomplished what he did otherwise." If you’re interested in helping Morris learn more about science and have an idea for a new chemistry-based piece, she tells me she’d love to hear it: “I have my own limited understanding of science, so anytime someone has an idea that I might run with, they are welcome to send me an e-mail.” Contact her at sienna.morris [at] She also adds that if you get especially involved with creating a piece, she may even give you the final print as a gift. To see the rest of Morris’ science art series, click here. Or go to her Etsy shop here. And finally, to watch Morris work, check out the time-lapse video below.

Author: Lauren Wolf

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