Rebecca Kamen is an artist whose creations bridge the intersection of visual art and science. One of her signatureprojects is a three-dimensional, visual interpretation of the Periodic Table of Elements, called “Divining Nature: An Elemental Garden.” Kamen recently shared the highlights of her hybrid career with high school students under the auspices of the USA Science & Engineering Festival’s Nifty Fifty speaker series.
You describe you the work you’re doing as bridging the intersection of art and science. How did you find yourself in this unusual role?
I was invited to do some lecturing in the People’s Republic of China back in the mid-1980s. During one of my lectures in Szechuan province, I met sculptor, Zhao Shu Tong. Zhao and I connected on a deep artistic level even though we didn’t speak the same language. We developed an idea of creating a collaborative sculpture, exploring scientific contributions of eastern and western technology. It was an opportunity through art, to celebrate the scientific and technological discoveries of the east and the west. Because of the political and economic situation at the time between our countries, the project was never fully realized.
The Chinese built beautiful, ornate scientific instruments that are amazing works of art. My experiences in China and doing research on ancient Chinese science and technology and contributions of the west planted the seeds to investigate intersections of art and science.
I’ve also traveled to interesting places, countries that are a bit more off the beaten track, like Burma, and Bhutan. These ancient cultures resonate with me because they’re untouched in many ways. I’m also interested in cosmology and creation stories from different cultures. I started realizing that every culture has created its own narrative of how the universe started. Researching these cultural cosmologies was a catalyst for my early interest in outer space. From there, my artwork started reflecting a lot of my research and observations in these areas. It rekindled an initial passion I had as a child to want to be a scientist.
Your art training is on your resume, an undergraduate degree in art education from Penn State, and two master’s degrees, one from Rhode Island School of Design and the other from the University of Illinois… where did the science come in?
…it goes back to my childhood. I loved to understand how things work. I grew up in the fifties before the Internet and Google and YouTube. I had an intense curiosity and sense of awe and wonder for everything in the universe and how it worked. I was the type of child who would get a doll and take it apart to understand how the body parts articulated. My dad taught me to use a hammer when I was four. It’s empowering to be able to examine the world around you and then build it in a unique way. Building things enables you to understand how things work.
I always wanted to be a scientist. Actually, growing up in the fifties, I wanted to be the first woman astronaut… With Sputnik, there was an imperative in the country about the space race. I got completely swept away with it…. [With respect to becoming an astronaut,] there was a problem. First, I tend to get airsick, and number two, I had challenges understanding math. It wasn’t until I became a college professor that I realized I was dyslexic. We didn’t really know much about dyslexia until the1970’s. This learning challenge, when I was young, prevented me from feeling I could pursue a science career.
I was able to get into an undergraduate school, but on probation because my SAT scores were so low. I decided the only way I was going to have success in college was to figure out a way of getting through without taking a math course. Art education was the only curriculum at Penn State where I did my undergraduate work, that didn’t require a math course. And I thought, “Well, wow, I like to make things with my hands, and I want to teach,” and it was a perfect fit. And once I took my first sculpture course, my career in art just took off.