March 24, 2020
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Mathematicians and artists draw inspiration from one another in a new class, “Math in the Studio,” co-taught by Professor of Mathematics Judy Holdener and Professor Emerita of Art Karen Snouffer. In the course, students learn the formal elements of art and design and are equipped with a mathematical understanding of notions central to art.
Michaela Orr ’19, a studio art major considering a math major or minor, is taking the class to explore ideas beyond what she is learning in her traditional art and math courses. “It’s not the math concepts that I’m exploring in calculus and my ‘Foundations’ class, and the art projects are also very different than the art projects you do in drawing and painting classes,” said Orr, from Hendersonville, North Carolina.
One of the students’ first projects involved wallpaper, an art genre used by scores of contemporary artists, and the ideas of Russian mathematician Evgraf Fedorov, who proved that there are precisely 17 possible types of symmetry exhibited in wallpaper patterns. Students learned how to classify wallpaper patterns based on their symmetry types and then created their own wallpaper designs.
To complete these projects, artists are practicing precalculus and mathematicians are learning to draw, but Holdener and Snouffer want to equip their students with additional skills. Each major project in the class involves a day of intensive critique, with students discussing each other’s work. “What I want them to learn is that there’s a way to make an opinion that’s constructive,” Snouffer said. “It’s a good way to learn the language of informed discourse. … It’s teaching them that you have to back up your opinion.”
Toloue Kabiri ’18, a studio art and philosophy double major from Irvine, California, appreciates how the professors’ enthusiasm for the topic spurs her and her classmates to work harder, even if that means drawing a single image until it’s just right. “It’s blown me away,” she said. “The professors have been dedicated and genuinely passionate about the subject matter in a way that affects the students. You catch on, and you get excited about drawing the same shape over and over again.”
Students also draw inspiration from the fluid way in which their professors are teaching the course. Holdener and Snouffer take extensive notes on each class and exercise and often ask the students for feedback to hear what the class finds effective.
“It’s really cool to see them get engaged. They set the precedent for failure being okay,” Kabiri said, noting some students’ nervousness about learning both math and art concepts. “The professors make it so accessible for both sides.”
The 16 students in the course needed a basic understanding of precalculus, as well as permission from the instructors, to enroll. Holdener and Snouffer filled the class from a pool of more than 50 applicants and focused on creating a balance of students from all class years and disciplines. The course is funded with help from a Great Lakes Colleges Association “Expanding Collaboration Initiative” grant, which provides support specifically for jointly taught courses.
Snouffer and Holdener, with students from their class, will discuss the connections between math and art in a talk Tuesday, March 21, at 11:10 a.m. in the Gund Gallery’s Community Foundation Theater.
—Elana Spivack ’17