Conceived in early Fall 2019, as the brainchild of mathematician Ingrid Daubechies and fiber artist Dominique Ehrmann, the Mathemalchemy project became in 2020 an exciting collaborative enterprise, driven by the energy and enthusiasm of twenty-four mathematical artists and artistic mathematicians. After more than a year of meeting only remotely (because of the Covid pandemic) and fabricating components in their separate locations, they met in the summer of 2021, all duly vaccinated, and built a large multimedia art installation that celebrates the creativity and beauty of mathematics.
A garden of mathematical delights …
In August 2019, at an exhibition at Highfield Hall & Gardens on Cape Cod, Ingrid saw Dominique’s Time to Break Free. She was bowled over by this installation — by its bold theme, depicting a steampunk “machine” that helps the flat figures on a quilt “break free” and step out into the world, confidently, as fully-fledged three-dimensional characters; by the diversity of the materials and the quality of the crafting; and by the beauty, energy and flow of the whole ensemble.
Ingrid had long been fascinated by the artistic mathematicians and mathematically-inspired artists who produced the beautiful, fascinating and exhilarating objects exhibited at the international Bridges Conferences or the annual Joint Mathematics Meetings held in the US. She contacted Dominique to introduce her, via virtual galleries, to the talents of this community, and asked her whether she would consider working with a group of these artists on a community project showcasing mathematical creativity. To Ingrid’s delight, Dominique was enthusiastic about this new challenge.
Over the next few months, Ingrid and Dominique met online each week, to articulate a first sketch of what the collaborative artwork could look like, and to plan a number of workshops at Duke University, Ingrid’s academic home, at which the participants would collaboratively build the installation.
At this point Dorothy Buck, also from Duke, joined the team. Dorothy’s research interests straddle mathematics and biology; she offered a substantial contribution from her Leverhulme Trust Grant funding, part of which had been earmarked for mathematical art projects
involving knot theory. Dominique built a preliminary one-eighth-scale maquette, and, with some trepidation, Ingrid and Dominique presented the project in the Math & Art Special Session at the January 2020 Joint Mathematics Meetings (JMM) in Denver, Colorado.
To their delight, fourteen talented mathematicians/artists wanted to participate. An evening party at JMM saw the true birth of the Mathemalchemy project. In the weeks that followed, the Simons Foundation generously agreed to fund the workshops at Duke. At the same time, the team started exchanging views about the project’s concept and realization. As Dominique and Ingrid hoped, everyone took on a share of ownership in the project.
A joint vision eventually emerged from long and spirited discussions, considerably transformed from the original conception, but still celebrating the fun, beauty and creativity in mathematics. The team recommended some other mathematicians/artists who were not at the Denver conference, and who enthusiastically agreed to participate when contacted. Over the next few months, a few others joined the group and rounded out the portfolio of skills and talents. The team ultimately grew to 24 participants, including Dominique and Ingrid.
The first workshop was planned for March 20-22, at the Duke University campus in Durham, North Carolina. Hotels and airline tickets were booked, food ordered, space reserved, some materials bought. But instead something unplanned arrived.
COVID-19 changed life worldwide in 2020, and it changed our project. Rather than postpone the whole endeavor, the Mathemalchemists opted to forge ahead, and to give extra depth and detail to the project. Undaunted, we held a 2-day workshop on the original March dates, now over Zoom, during which we refined our vision, hammered out a new approach, and formed sub-teams to work on different facets of the final tableau.
Discussions continued over the next few months, leading to more clarity, and to more layers of meaning for the project. In March we still had hope (in retrospect, overly optimistic) that we could hold some of the workshops that we’d planned for May, June and August 2020 in Durham. When it became clear that that was not going to happen, the entire team met weekly via Zoom to continue its work, while sub-team members met regularly to discuss finer details of the project. Many components ended up being fabricated in our own homes, for assembly at a later time, when travel and in-person gatherings would again be possible. In the mean time, Dominique built a 1/4 scale model that was featured in a promotional video.
The original pre-COVID plan was to have the project mostly completed by August 2020; put some finishing touches on it during Fall 2020; and complete the project in November 2020. That plan also required adjustment.
Our first physical get-together and construction happened at the Rhodes Information Initiative at Duke University, during a 3-week period in July 2021, when during a brief hiatus many believed that the pandemic was behind us. (But we were careful even so, and no-one got infected as a consequence of our getting together!) In the Fall of 2021 finishing touches were applied, and the resilience of the installation was tested. In December 2021, the installation left Duke, and in January 2022, Mathemalchemy started its career as a traveling exhibition.
Mathemalchemy in numbers
on September 24th 2021
Mathematicians and artists collaborating to create the unprecedented piece.
Estimate of the number of hours spent on Skype & Zoom to continue our project through the pandemic.
Emails exchanged by our Team
Estimate of number of people-hours spent by mathemachemists to finalize many components and put together the installation from its components during the intensive July 2021 in-person workshop at Duke University.