Patterns, Space, and Time, by Trudy Myrrh Reagan

ABSTRACT: The author has studied natural patterns both by drawing them and finding analogs for them in crafts materials. Several media will be described: batik, shibori, wrinkled paper painting, paper marbling, constructing a moiré, and painting and engraving on Plexiglas. As well, she will discuss the generation of the patterns in nature, and how scientists’ understanding of them expanded during the period of her own explorations. She recommends this study for enhancing one’s connection to the natural world and the cosmos. The author also explains how she found patterns useful as metaphors for philosophic ideas.

The artist’s eye is captivated even from childhood by rainbow stripes on mud puddles or drifting smoke. The movement of smoke, for example, that mesmerized me when I was small came from my mother’s cigarets or embers in the campfire. Gazing at wisps of smoke is no trivial matter! Drifting up gracefully, smoke obeys laws of physics in a most visible way. It loses momentum and curls around in ever-changing patterns. Like smoke inject­ed into wind tunnels for aeronautical research, it traces out air currents, in particular, the hot air rising from the cigaret. Cool air, which is denser, gently moves toward it to fill the partial vacuum it created. Where the smoke loses momentum, the warm and cool air circle around each other, hovering. The particles of smoke are supported by the invisible atmosphere, principally nitrogen and oxygen molecules. This is why I found an appealing logic in its apparent disorder.

For 45 years, I have explored comparable patterns in nature in my art. They turned out to be manifestations of profound truths, and a vehicle for expressing philosophic ideas as well.

Nathan Cabot Hale, an art educator, wrote about the dilemma of the representational artist in our time: “The biggest challenge to the artist today is learning the abstract language of art. Long ago it was enough to copy the surface forms of nature, but now it is our task to get at the root of nature’s meanings. There is no other way to do this than to learn the kind of reasoning that enables us to look beneath the surface of things.” Leonardo did this with his famous sketches of turbulent water. Beginning in the 1880s, Odion Redon and others were inspired by the “landscapes” of cells under the microscope. The surface of the paintings of the cathedral doors at Rouen by Monet, 1904, have a fractal quality, though this was not even a concept or a word before Benoit Mandelbrot began math­ematical work on fractals in the 1960s. Mandelbrot dubbed fractals “the mathematics of wiggles.”[3] They generated novel geometric designs, and when random numbers were added, computer artists found a tool to model nature. Peaks composed of random polygon shapes be­came “mountains.”[4] However, geologists noted the lack of erosion patterns, and “behaviors” had to be integrated into to fractal algorithms.

Beginning in 1973, I learned batik and adopted hexagonal patterns as a theme in order to work in modules to create large wall pieces. Hexagons, with their 120° angles, tile a plane. Hexagons in nature are plentiful. I found many examples in Ernst Haeckle’s Art Forms in Nature[7] and soon noticed them all around me. One morning I awoke on a camping trip and gazed into the branches of a Red Fir, which has perfect 30°– 60° branching. The batik process added another natural-looking element. Batik is a process of drawing the design on thin fabric in wax, then dyeing it. The waxed areas resist the dye and remain white. Afterwards, the wax is removed from the cloth. During the dyeing process, the wax develops cracks, which the dye enters.

As well, I learned the joy of pattern-generating processes of tie-dye. Folding and binding fabric in a systematic way prevents dye from entering the folds. The result always surprises. Complex results can occur from quite simple manipulations.

I was attracted to Japanese shibori (a tie dye variant), where one draws, say, a bamboo leaf, and stitches along the lines of the image with strong thread. It is gathered and secured, using the threads as drawstrings. The tightly-drawn folds are not very deep. Success demands the use of dyes like indigo that do not penetrate well, but remain on the surface of the bound-up cloth. Cutting the threads and ungathering the folds reveals the pattern. An exciting moment! The works had an appear­ance of not being handmade, but created by some natural process.

When the cloth is tightly drawn up, ruffles in the cloth surrounding the design prevent it from dyeing evenly, creating a halo effect. Kirlian photographs capture a halo effect of natural specimens by placing them on an electrically-charged photographic plate in a dark room. One of my favorite Kirlian photographs was of a large leaf photographed by this process. The Kirlian Effect was my interpretation of it in shibori.

Kirlian uses traditional shibori branching pat­terns writ large. I then demonstrated shibori could also be used for erosion patterns. My shibori technique demonstrated that the similarity between branching (a growth process) and erosion (a subtractive process) is pronounced, be­cause both involve bifurcation. That is, at certain points in their development, the stem or the ridge becomes divided. How does the “erosion” pattern develop when sewn? Sometimes stitching follows the lines of a drawing, but another method is stitching perpendicular to the lines. Horizontal rows of stitches create vertical wrinkles that become the design. By offsetting the stitches, branching patterns begin to emerge (mokume shibori, or “wood grain”). Sewing a spiral path in the cloth gathers the wrinkles into something that looked to me like ridges of a deeply-eroded volcano. This is clearly seen in Seismic Fuji.

The shibori process proved too labor-intensive, but gave me a feeling for what wrinkles would naturally do. This intuition was utilized in my next series of landscapes that looked like satellite photos, dubbed my N.A.S.A. series (Not Actually Science Achievements). Combining what I knew about geology and shibori, I wrinkled thin vegetable paper into “mountainscape” reliefs. These were sprayed from several angles with different colors of spray paints. If water areas were called for, I protected the lowest areas of the relief with a resist of ordinary sand. Unlike the sewn shiboris, these were swiftly executed. The three-dimensionality and degree of detail seemed uncanny to viewers. I was able to mimic certain geologic formations. For instance, in Appalachian II one can see the typical pattern that sedimentary rocks make when uplifted by folding, then truncated by subsequent erosion.

Fluid dynamics is the name for a set of patterns that have fascinated me since childhood. In the 1970s, black and white graphics of fluid flows generated by computers began to appear. Of the three types of flow, laminar, oscillating and turbulent, I gravitated to the oscillating flow diagrams (like flow patterns often observed around bridge supports in a river). These had a natural gracefulness I admired. This attracted me to paper marbling. In this craft, used in the end papers of fine old books, a substrate of water thickened with carrageenan supports droplets of paint. This substrate is unlike plain water: diluted paint floats on it well. It is viscous, and supports a design long enough to be captured on pa­per. The paint, which has a surfactant added to make the paint spread, becomes a film only a few atoms thick. The surface tension, very strong around the edge of each droplet, is maintained even when the drop­let is radically deformed. For this reason, neighboring colors do not mix, and complex stripes result when it is combed or blown on. (The result is not unlike computer diagrams of chaos functions).I was most amazed to see how combing the surface of round droplets led to the mystifying patterns in traditional marbled paper. tried blowing on the suspended paint with a straw at a very low angle to achieve fluid flow patterns. I did not succeed in making oscillating patterns, but made many mushroom clouds! After the paint floating in the pan is has been manipulated into a design, paper treated with an alum solution is lowered onto the surface. When the paper is picked up, most of the paint adheres to it, since it is chemically more attractive to the paint than is the liquid bath. I used much of this beautiful paper depending on their differently-shaped atoms.

The Fibonacci spiral is a rich template for generating designs. Recently, I used several permutations of it to convey an idea that has held me in its grip since 1975, that “all knowledge is one.” In 1990, E.O. Wilson wrote Consilience, which shows the connections he sees between all branches of knowledge.[19] Therefore, I have named my fourth and most recent version of this piece, completed in 2004, A Vast Consilience. The areas of knowledge that I selected to present were:

• the astronomer (who probes the farthest reaches of the universe)

• the biologist (and others who explore the extremely small)

• the artist or composer, who delights in new pattern configurations

• and the mystic blessed with a emotional appreciation of the Whole.

The center of Vast Consilience shows an eclipse, because the whole pattern is unknowable—not by us, not by the culture as a whole, nor by people in a future epoch. It is interesting that both the Greek words logos and cosmos have the idea of an underlying order of the universe imbedded in them. Of course, how we explain what little we can observe is always under question. Geologists, who can’t “repeat the experiment,” operate with multiple working hypotheses, hoping that evidence will surface that eventually proves one theory more nearly correct than another. Worse, physicists are confronted with the Uncertainty Principle: Measuring light as a wave is incompatible with measuring it as a particle, yet it appears to be both. Since I think in metaphors, I felt light was a good analogy for The Divine. It manifests itself so differently to people of various temperaments and through the lens of different cultures. Like light, it is more than any of its descriptions, indescribable.

In Divinity, I used a moiré pattern to represent the indescribable Di­vine. Making the moiré was simple, but tedious; the result magical: When two grid-like patterns are superimposed, a third pattern results. The effect is like the crests and troughs, cancellation and reinforcement patterns, of two sets of waves crossing each other. For this project, I chose to create a cruciform pattern by superimposing two designs, spots and radiating stripes. I applied the patterns to two layers of plastic by adhering plastic film to mask portions of the design and spray painting it. I hung the painted layers independently, one in front of the other. One could move them, making the moiré pattern shift dynamically. To the left I created a strong but static cruciform pattern based on the moiré, one that I named “God” and executed it in batik. To the right was a dynamic but less distinct interpretation, “Tao.” I did this piece in 1980, after misreading a sentence. It said, “The Tao is a web.” I read, “The Tao is a verb.” Suddenly, the Judeo-Christian-Muslim God, and even the Greek “cos­mos” (the underlying order, as I had understood it) seemed static. The center moiré I think of as “Neither/Both/More.” In this polarized world of loudly competing religious doctrines, Divinity is a plea for tolerance.

In a recent work, Catastrophe, I murdered a previous painting on Plexiglas by stretch­ing a wrinkled cotton sheet over it and pouring rubbing alcohol (an acrylic paint solvent) on it. I pulled the cloth up, and found a portrait of an explosion that took relatively little effort to revise. Post-Katrina, this is how I expressed the “perfect storm.” The prototypical avalanche triggered by just one additional grain of sand, so familiar in chaos theory, is discussed in Ubiquity: Why Catastrophes Happen.[21] Its author, Mark Buchanan, shows that phenomena like earthquakes happen continually. On a Bell curve, both the miniscule and mammoth ones rest at the extreme edges, that is, are very rare. Moderate ones are common. Which kind will be triggered by the “last grain of sand”? It’s utterly unpredictable, he declares. Some argue that such unpredictability is not only more artistically intriguing, but closer to the true nature of reality. I would argue that even different catastrophes have their pattern “signatures,” just as one can distinguish “modern jazz” or “kletzmer” from surprising combinations of improvised notes.

It is fashionable to denigrate “scientific truth,” because so much remains unknowable. The “unknowable” is the subject of my work, Divinity. How­ever, I believe that physical and mathematical rules for pattern generation have great explanatory power, taking us beyond, for instance, the “random process of evolution” to explain the beauties we observe. We should not abandon our search for truth and universality!

My curious eye has attracted me to certain patterns in nature; learning about them plunged me ever deeper into fundamental questions about how they arise, and which have to do with the very fabric of space and time themselves. The study of patterns in nature indeed is profound.

Trudy Myrrh Reagan is an artist who founded YLEM: Artists Using Science and Technology in 1981. In 2004, she started an interest group within YLEM on the subject of patterns, both natural and mathematical. This piece is excerpted from the original article which was published in Leonardo, Volume 40 Number 3 2007 It can also be found at Myrrh's website

c. Corinne Whitaker 2007 .