Curator Fosters Dialogue between the Arts and Sciences

Campus gallery a meeting place for a wealth of ideas

A fascination with science drives artist Deborah Davidson’s work as a curator and educator, and the fruits of her interest are found in the Art + Science + Design series of fall exhibitions and related programming at the Suffolk University Gallery.

Dealing with subjects like Mathematics and Art: Searching for Pattern, the current exhibit, Davidson adds drop-in activities such as an interactive demonstration of 3-D printing, which reflects the work by two artists in the exhibit, and fractal snowflake cutting.

“As a lay person I’ve always been interested in science,” said Davidson, who in recent years began to notice how many artists in Boston and elsewhere are focused on science and the environment. “My interest is in thinking across disciplines, and I aim to connect with the whole Suffolk community through the gallery.”

Diverse ideas find common ground

Suffolk faculty from the sciences and math are no strangers to the gallery, which is housed in the University’s New England School of Art & Design. Davidson pairs them with artists for compelling conversations about the intersection of their disciplines.

She also brings together artists, scientists, and mathematicians through her off-campus Catalyst Conversations lectures, which sometimes complement the gallery shows, as when Davidson recently brought together composers Dennis Miller and Hubert Ho to discuss the relationship between mathematics and music.

Gallery’s new home on campus

The University’s positive atmosphere, with faculty and staff open to many ideas, has helped Davidson succeed in her interdisciplinary efforts despite the gallery’s being in a satellite location on Arlington Street—a situation that will change when the New England School of Art & Design moves to the Beacon Hill campus in summer 2017.

“Now we are literally reaching to the main campus to make connections, but we won’t have as far to reach once we’re on the hill,” said Davidson.

“The art and design department has in a way been invisible, but we’re going to become visible” in the new location, said Professor Audrey Goldstein, chair of the New England School of Art & Design. “I’m really excited that Deb has embraced cross-disciplinary gallery talks and events. When people see how visual art has a place in a lot of cross-disciplinary thinking, they’ll be coming forward with ideas”

She gave as an example scholars in the government department who might be thinking about political art. They could work with art and design faculty to create a one-credit course on that topic.

Fall launch for new gallery 

Planning drawing for gallery to be located on the sixth floor of Sawyer

Davidson plans to usher in the new gallery with a science-inspired exhibition in September. She’s conjuring up a show that will reveal connections among dreaming/aspiration, imagining, and beauty. A series of programs—including hands-on activities and a Facebook page that allows people to participate beyond the gallery’s walls—will welcome Suffolk community involvement.

“The gallery in a funny way is like the voice of the art department,” said Goldstein. “People come to look and think, to see and interact. It becomes a place where ideas are made visible. Having that on campus gives everyone a chance to participate.”

The new gallery on the sixth floor of the Sawyer Building will be made up of two adjacent spaces that can be programmed as one or separately. Exhibits are free and open to the public as well as the campus community. While Davidson focuses on bringing in artists from Boston and the region, the gallery also shows student and faculty work.

Cross-disciplinary inspiration

In curating the most recent faculty show, Passion Engine, Davidson created opportunities for students and faculty outside the art school to be part of the conversation. Suffolk students participated in a discussion of the “passion engines” that drive artists, writers, designers, musicians, scholars, scientists, and students.

And Davidson moderated a panel discussion that brought together Professors Gary Fireman, chair of psychology; Randal Thurston, fine arts; Rita Daly, graphic design; Wyatt Bonikowski, English; and Richard Chambers, theatre.

The discussion revolved around how the professors became involved in their areas of interest, illuminating many aspects of inspiration. So, while Fireman, as a psychology professor and researcher, “is not in a creative field, what he does is very creative,” said Davidson.

Dream research meets artistic vision

Fireman studies dreams and nightmares, which tie a visual element to emotions. He found the gallery discussion “opened up new points of view and made me think about what I do in a way that was enriching.”

“What I found interesting was that our interests had so much in common,” he said. “My interest in emotions' role in reacting to events is so similar to that of people working in the visual arts.”

His connection with the art school goes beyond intellectual discourse: The Psychology Department walls feature original artwork from undergraduate artists who have depicted faces showing a variety of emotions.

“One of the privileges of being part of a college of arts and sciences is being involved with people from different disciplines and intellectual traditions,” said Fireman. “It would be easy to become entrenched in your own point of view, but the discussion with the artists was a wonderful opening up for me.”

Conversing through song

Davidson joined Suffolk three years ago, a year after she founded Catalyst Conversations. She had been involved in independent curating and programming for some time but had become interested in putting together ideas, not merely exhibitions. Catalyst presents nine programs yearly, showcasing artists whose work resonates with science and technology along with events that demonstrate the many ways that art, science, and technology connect.

The power of these conversations was revealed during a recent Davidson interview with Creative Minds Out Loud. She spoke of a Catalyst planning meeting with musician Stan Strickland and neuroscientist Ani Patel, who studies music and the brain: “We got together …to talk about what we were going to be doing. And they had to stop talking to each other. They just started singing to each other because they had gone beyond language even though he studies language in the brain.”


Greg Gatlin
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