‘Synapse Series’ connects art and science here at UA


Colors and chemicals flying in studios and laboratories, the artist and scientist seek to stretch the limits of human ingenuity.

Matthew Kolodziej, painter and professor of art here at The University of Akron, hopes to do the same with his Synapse Art and Science Series, a series of lectures, workshops, exhibitions and residencies. It is hosted by UA and local partners such as the Akron Art Museum to focus on the intersection of art and science.

Matthew Kolodziej

Matthew Kolodziej, painter and professor, launched UA's Synapse Series.

It’s an intersection that, to many, might seem a collision of unrelated and even opposing forces. But Kolodziej is quick to point out that these so-called opposites actually attract, generating a “spark” of innovation – an exchange of information not unlike that which occurs at the trillions of synapses in the human brain, where electricity and chemicals leap from neuron to neuron.

Indeed, Kolodziej and his colleagues in the areas of design, art, engineering, polymers and biology are eager to demolish the partition, erected in the popular mind, separating the “left-brained” scientist from the “right-brained” artist.

Both hemispheres of the brain are put to work, for example, by artists such as Eric Gjerde, a “paper artist” whose complex, elaborately folded structures – including his “Dragon Helix,” made from a single, 137-foot-long sheet of paper, with an estimated 19,000 folds – are geometrical marvels, demonstrating the mathematical precision that underlies the beauty of sculpture.

Eric-Gjerde with work

Eric Gjerde, seen here at an exhibit with his work “Dragon Helix,” will lead off the 2018-19 Synapse Series on Sept. 13.

“The ability to think abstractly, to be able to think in different scales and understand the connection between materials and ideas – that’s something that artists and scientists both do very well,” Kolodziej says.

Gjerde, who will speak at a Synapse event at the Akron Art Museum on Sept. 13, One South High St., near campus, also has developed a method of growing “living” paper from bacteria. His translucent and fibrous “bio-paper” is just one example of the broader convergence of nature, art and science that so intrigues Kolodziej.

“We can learn from origami – or from looking at things like how insects unfold their wings – how to take something flat and fold it into a small unit, which has multiple applications,” Kolodziej says. “Organizations like NASA are interested in this. How can you take equipment – like solar panels or life support systems – and fold it up for travel, and then unfold it on Mars?”

The convergence of art and science is also explored by Peter Galison, an acclaimed author, film director and professor of the history of science and physics at Harvard University, who will speak at the museum on Oct. 11. Through documentaries ranging in subject from hydrogen bombs to black holes, and through books such as “Picturing Science, Producing Art” and courses such as “Filming Science,” Galison demonstrates the permeability of the art-science divide.

Seeing in new ways

“Art and science are about seeing the world in incredible new ways,” Kolodziej says, adding that Fred Tomaselli, a Brooklyn-based artist whose surrealistic collages probe the nature of human perception and altered states of consciousness, is scheduled to speak at the museum on March 7 next year. “These connections involve making careful observations – whether it be thinking about how colors create movement or how geckos’ feet stick to something.”

The latter reference is to the gecko-inspired adhesives developed by UA’s Dr. Ali Dhinojwala, H.A. Morton Professor of Polymer Science, and Dr. Peter Niewiarowski, professor of biology. Kolodziej, Dhinojwala, Niewiarowski and Dr. Chris Miller, associate professor of civil engineering, are principal investigators at UA’s Biomimicry Research and Innovation Center (BRIC). It is perhaps in the flowering field of biomimicry – in which scientists and artists alike are emulating nature to produce work of utility and beauty, merging “function” with “form” – that the union of art and science has been most fruitful.

Fruits of that union include the biologically inspired art, jewelry and housewares designed and produced by Jessica Rosenkrantz and Jesse Louis-Rosenberg, who will speak at the museum on April 4, 2019. Their company, Nervous Systems Inc., is a generative design studio that emulates natural processes and structures to create computer programs allowing for the design and fabrication of unique products such as dendritic, coral-inspired necklaces and branching chandeliers inspired by growing leaves and blooming flowers.

In collaboration with colleagues across multiple areas of the University, Synapse has sponsored lectures, exhibitions and residencies from several others engaged in biomimetic work, including biologist Janine Benyus, one of the pioneers of biomimicry; Simon Schleicher, renowned for his foliage-inspired architecture; and artist Nathalie Miebach, who translates meteorological data – from thunderstorms, hurricanes and blizzards, for instance – into intricately woven sculptures.

Positive disruption

“The foundation for innovation is bringing in people that are going to create a rich community,” Kolodziej says of the more than 40 artists and designers he has sponsored through Synapse (supported by the Knight, Callahan and GAR foundations) since its founding in 2007. “I know that these people are at the top of their game, and that they’ll create a kind of disruption that sparks something you couldn’t have imagined.

“The whole reason to be an artist is to disrupt thinking, to not simply validate what you know, but to examine what you don’t know, to look at the invisible – and to think, how do you visualize something that you can’t see?” adds Kolodziej, whose own work can be seen at the “Frameworks” exhibition at the Akron Art Museum until Sept. 9.

Kolodziej says that his paintings – which are collages of artifacts and structures found in abandoned urban sites – invite the viewer to explore the “space between things,” the “fissures and gaps” in which the “human desire to connect,” to piece together the fragments of human experience, is engaged. For, he adds, it is often in the relationships and interactions between things, in the empty spaces – between the viewer and the painting, as between one person and another – that meaning is formed and discovered.

Spark of innovation and growth

“The space between things carries more content and meaning than the things themselves,” Kolodziej says. “So that’s the same thing with Synapse – it’s a matter of trying to create interactions. Our hope is to create new audiences for both arts and sciences and to encourage conversations across disciplines.” 

One such discipline is literature. Earlier this year, Synapse – in partnership with the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts (NEOMFA) program in creative writing and its UA campus coordinator, David Giffels, associate professor of English – hosted its first literary guest, Adam Gopnik, the award-winning columnist for the New Yorker, to speak about the intersections of science and humanities from Galileo and Shakespeare to our present time.

“The idea of Synapse is that it’s meant to go out into the community, to showcase innovation and spark educational, economic and cultural growth,” Kolodziej says. “Look at any city that has had growth, and it starts with creative people moving in – with people seeing opportunities where others don’t. Creating intersections for artists and scientists turns this opportunity into action.”

For more information and details about upcoming events, visit Synapse online.


Media contact: Lisa Craig, 330-972-7429 or lmc91@uakron.edu.