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Synergy: Art and Science Intersect in San Luis Obispo

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"Cluster" by Jarred Pfeiffer
"Cluster" by Jarred Pfeiffer

At the intersection of science and art, sculpture and synesthesia, is "Synergy."

The exhibition, which runs May 16 through June 29 at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art, represents a visual conversation between two Southern California artists -- San Luis Obispo ceramicist Jarred Pfeiffer, who uses clay to create "monuments to math," and multi-disciplinary artist Menthe Wells of Yorba Linda, whose psychology background informs everything from enameled miniatures to murals to welded metal sculptures.

Exhibition and Development Director Ruta Saliklis described "Synergy" as one of the museum's more avant-garde offerings.

"Being a smaller regional museum, we can experiment and push the limits a little bit," Saliklis said. "In a bigger institution, it's harder. We have a little more flexibility here."

In October, the museum hosted "BODYidentity," an interactive exhibition of photographs by Los Angeles-based artist and material scientist Rita Blaik that sought to depict the human body through "both intimate and clinical lenses," broken down into elements or ingredients.

By mixing artistic and scientific disciplines, "I hope (Blaik, Pfeiffer and Wells) can inspire other artists to say, 'Yeah, I have these other interests and I can also express them artistically,'" said Saliklis, who orchestrated both exhibitions. "It's not fluff. It stimulates a different part of the brain, and that is going to make us better human beings."

Jarred Pfeiffer: A Fascination with Fractals

Despite growing up "around clay" in Hartland, Wisc., Jarred Pfeiffer initially wasn't eager to follow in the footsteps of his father, who taught high school ceramics for 30 years. "I want to make my own path," he said.

In fact, he originally enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to study engineering.

"A friend of mine finally said, 'Okay, forget about money. ... What could you see yourself waking up and doing every day?'" he recalled. "I thought about it and I said, 'I could see myself waking up and doing clay every day.'"

After graduating in 2007 with an art degree, he spent two years teaching high school geometry and algebra for two years in Charlotte, N.C., as part of Teach for America. He then spent a year as a resident artist at Wisconsin's Carroll University.

But it wasn't until graduate school that Pfeiffer, who graduated from Kansas State University with a master of fine arts degree about a year ago, decided to merge his two interests.

"One of (my) fellow grad students said, 'You know, Jarred, you always talk about how much you love math and science, but I'm not really seeing it in your work. You need to make work about ... things that interest you, and it seems like math and science are those things,'" the artist recalled.

After researching fractal geometry, "I was completely hooked," said Pfeiffer, who became the tenure-track ceramics instructor at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo in August. "Math is all around us ... and it's largely described by fractals."

"It's just so incredible to me that that same spiral -- the golden spiral -- (that) forms in a nautilus shell (is) the spiral that forms in the arms of a galaxy," Pfeiffer said, "or the spreading branches of a tree." (The famed Fibonacci sequence, for instance, can be found in the yellow seeds of a sunflower as well as the bright green buds of a Romanesco broccoli.)

In his work, Pfeiffer references everything from the Pythagorean theorem to chaos theory, examining equations, sequencing, and geometric forms.

"That's the biggest challenge, representing these abstract ideas as physical, three-dimensional objects," he said, " ... taking this world of academia...and translating it into the art world, which is this completely different monster."

Pfeiffer's piece "Torus" explores the title shape, which he described as "a circle that is a 360-degree revolution perpendicular to the plane." Dozens of slipcast clay "donuts" -- molded using children's plastic play toys -- cast shadows resembling interlocking loops, he said, an effect magnified by "the sheer numbers and the expanse of the piece."

"Ascension" by Jarred Pfeiffer
"Ascension" by Jarred Pfeiffer

Other pieces include "2.5 Dimension," which uses crumbled paper dipped in porcelain slip to address the idea of fractal dimension, and "Cluster," which features clusters of ceramic hexagons resembling honeycombs. (The latter is laid out in a fractal pattern known as a Sierpinski triangle.)

"It's just so fascinating to me that these tiny bees have evolved to create these incredibly complex structures," Pfeiffer said, noting that hexagons are the most efficient and structurally strong way of "packing as many cells into a given area without any wasted place."

Pfeiffer's platters, which he approaches more as abstract paintings than as pottery, are the closet he comes to two-dimensional art. Even so, he prefers texture-enhancing glazes that evoke randomness or chaos," he said. "They're not flat...They change in thickness or they bubble up or they run."

Although Pfeiffer acknowledged that a digital approach to mathematic art would be simpler, "Sitting in front of a computer just does not interest me at all," he said, especially given his preference for the tactile. "I love working with my hands ... and having a physical thing that I've created, something I can touch, hold, run my fingers over."

"Moor" by Menthe Wells

Top Image: "Synergy," which runs May 16 through June 29 at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art, showcases the work of Southern California artists Jarred Pfeiffer and Menthe Wells.

Menthe Wells: Embracing the Senses

Menthe Wells has always experienced the world a little differently.

Like David Hockney, Franz Liszt, Vladimir Nabokov and Vincent Van Gogh, she has a neuropsychological condition called synesthesia in which stimulation in one sense, such as hearing, produces experiences in a completely different sense, such as sight. "I would hear (music by Pyotr Ilyich) Tchaikovsky and I saw color that went with Tchaikovsky's work -- sometimes red, sometimes orange and blue," the artist explained.

"It's not kooky. It's not edgy. It's not nutsy. .. It's just a phenomenon people experience that's very, very normal," Wells said, comparing the sensation to the feeling a moviegoer might get in the pit of her stomach while watching an unsettling scene -- or the goose pimples a student might experience when witnessing fingernails scraping a blackboard.

Wells, who grew up in New York City, now suspects that synesthesia was a "subliminal driving force" in her decision to study art. But she also credits being "exposed to an amazing amount of original art and magnificent experiences" such as discussing primitive art aesthetics -- in French -- with Cubist sculptor Jacques Lipchitz at the now-closed Segy Gallery.

"Eclipse" by Menthe Wells

In her 20s, after earning a bachelor of art degree from the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut and a master of fine arts degree from Rutgers University in New Jersey, Wells moved south to New Orleans. There, she worked as a commercial artist on projects including the Apollo 11 lunar mission.

"In my early 30s, I finally found another dimension to what I was doing," said Wells, who holds a doctorate in synaesthetics and synesthesia research from the University of Connecticut. She traces her academic interest in synesthesia to a journal article by Michael Andrews, then chair of the Department of Synaesthetic Education at Syracuse University in New York.

"I got in touch with him and was fascinated to see that he was both a psychologist and an artist," recalled Wells, who was equally fascinated by Andrews' reaction to her. "He met me and looked at me and...he immediately started to describe a color...He described me as a very pale tangerine color, almost a very ripe velvety peach." It was, Wells realized later, the same shade as her couch.

Later, while doing doctoral research in Arizona, she interviewed synesthete artist Ettore "Ted" DeGrazia of Tuscon. "At midnight the same day...this car pulled up," she said, and DeGrazia climbed out, instrument in hand. "And he (blew) the trumpet. Because he had described the trumpet as the sound of red."

"Sea Study II" by Menthe Wells

Asked how sight, sound, movement and mood meld in her own work, which combines natural influences with abstract expressionism, Wells pointed to her seascapes. Pieces such as her "Sea Study" series seek to recapture the thunderous sensation of dawn at the beach -- waves crashing on rocks, fog rolling onto shore.

Wells' painting "Moor" also invokes the interplay of water and light, this time in vivid greens and reds. Although she initially found inspiration watching wind-swept eddies near the docks of Hong Kong, she discovered echoes of the same effects while working in the moors of England, said the artist, who has studios in Yorba Linda and Antelope Valley. "I actually started with one inspiration but finished with another, which was an incredible experience to see the transference."

Wells' latest works include a series of wall hangings depicting whirling flocks of birds. Because of their portability, "It ... mean(s) a whole new range of materials for me that I've never used before in collage and painting and mixed media," she said.

Also featured in Wells' San Luis Obispo Museum of Art show are several welded-steel sculptures -- ranging from the whimsical "Reclining Dude" to the powerful, dynamic "Circular Embrace."

Whether she's bending wires to create calligraphic "line drawings" or translating landscapes into light and movement, Wells said, "the force to express yourself is there."

"One time I'm exhibiting and working in one medium, the next time I find myself going through self-discovery in another medium," she said. "I often say to people, 'This time I've discovered myself.'...Days and weeks pass and then I say, 'Oh I've discovered myself.' I know now ... it's going to go on forever."

A selection of "Birds" hangings by Menthe Wells

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