On Inspiration: The Beauty of Math

Inspiration can come from such unexpected sources. I find that I often get ideas while reading or learning something unrelated to art. One of my favorite painting pairs I ever completed is a set of square paintings that were inspired by studying math.  

In 2004 I was using my studio art education to work in a job that was not paying the bills. I was more broke working with my art degree than I was when I waited tables while I earned the degree. I was determined to make a change. So I did the thing every adult hates to do, I called my mother to ask for help. 

My mother always told me I had a room at home if ever I needed it and I was ready to take her up on that. I wanted to go back to school in my hometown. The second call I made was to ask my dad for my first semester of tuition to go back to school while I waited on student loan approval and the surprise blessing of a scholarship for “older” students (I was 26). 

I reenrolled at my alma mater, The University of Alabama at Birmingham. I had no idea what I was going to study, I just knew it needed to guarantee me a job that would allow me to afford a diet of more than scrambled eggs.

When I started college the first time I was a science major and had taken a Calculus class. When I was sure to make a C or worse in that class, I dropped the class before the C went on my transcript. When I changed my major to art and no longer needed Calculus to graduate, I took a simpler math and graduated without completing Calculus. Passing Calculus with a good grade was a personal challenge. 

Not having taken a math class in 6 years I was behind the curve in a class full of students that had taken AP Calculus in high school the previous year and I felt inept. Motivated by a need to prove something to myself as well as the fear of repaying student loans in the future, I was determined to succeed so I started going to the math assistance lab every day. 

Over those weeks and months a desire to learn math grew into a full blown love of mathematics and the beauty and elegance of equations. One day Calculus started making sense and I saw that MATH IS REALLY BEAUTIFUL. I wanted to learn more so I went to talk with my instructor. She explained that I really had two options 1. A PhD in math (I heard 8 more years of scrambled eggs) or 2. An engineering degree. I chose the latter, I was after all, primarily looking for a degree that could support my art habit. 

I am an artist and if you ask anyone who knew me as a child they will tell you, I always have been an artist. Suddenly though, for the first time, I saw beauty in something that doesn’t directly tickle the senses like art or music. A 2014 Scientific American article explains why this happened (Beauty in Math and Art Activate Same Brain Area, Scientific American, Sept 1, 2014). What they found was that, mathematical equations activate the same area of the brain in mathematicians as beautiful art or music. 

Detail, serd paintings, Melissa Muehleisen, 2008.

While I was studying Calculus in school I was continually inspired to create art about what I was learning. These paintings depict a beautiful mathematical concept visually. It is the math of the growth of an egg. At the beginning the growth rate is exponential (increasing very quickly). While the growth continues for some time, the rate of growth changes and slows. This rate can be quantified using a derivative to analyze the growth curve. The rate begins increasing (first derivative) fast then eventually the egg size is still increasing but at a decreasing rate, as shown by the concave down second derivative. Such simple and elegant math can show us the exact moment when the rate changes from increasing to decreasing. To me, the ability to apply precise math to such a miraculous natural process is simply beautiful. 

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