Knots of Science and Art

2014-05-03 12.42.23Several of the New Haven museum exhibits have changed over for summer.  So on this luscious spring day, I visited three.

The day was so pretty that I took the opportunity to stroll into the woods behind the Eli Whitney Museum.  I had never walked through the adjacent covered bridge, proclaiming on a sign that Hartford is 32 miles away, and then Boston beyond.

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The A. Frederick Oberllin bridge was erected in 1980, but seems like it could be much older.  It spans the heavily rushing Mill River.  After crossing, I ventured on a little hike along the far side of the river bank.  I’m so happy to know about this picturesque place, so close to my house.

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from inside the bridge





Inside the museum is the 20th Leonardo Challenge.  The theme this year is Knots, with artists riffing on “Knot What You Imagine.”  The challenge is about applying Leonardo-type thinking to a problem.  Using science and art in imaginative ways.  This year’s inspiration are the knots from the “Mona Lisa” bodice.


What do they mean or represent, asks the exhibit curators.  They are intricate and specific, demonstrating the artist’s command of detail in that field of sfumato (smoky atmosphere).  Is this merely about the artist’s bravura?  Do they represent a brand for ‘da vinci’?  Are they a mathematical code?  Do they represent his exchanges with Islam via Istanbul?  These are the knots art 2014-05-03 12.33.44historians tie themselves in.

So why not challenge artists to do the same?  My favorite of the works is “Gordian Knot” by Brad Conant.  He perfectly represents how my brain feels right now.

I also liked the Conceptual word play of “Not, Naught, Knot” by Group C (Brad Collins/B. Whiteman).

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Makes you think a little, eh?





Hannah Clark’s proud grandmother showed me the secret of “Not a Knot.”  From most angles you see the pieces suspended in the box, then in just one spot, the pieces cohere.

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a very clever mind at work






Knots of a very different sort took me to the New Haven Museum, and its moving exhibit “Nothing is Set in Stone: The Lincoln Oak and the New Haven Green.”  Again blending science and art, the exhibit commemorates a peculiar event resulting from the October 2012 Hurricane Sandy super  storm.

On the New Haven Green, the “Lincoln Oak,” planted in 1909 to commemorate the centennial of Lincoln’s birth, was blown over by the storm.  Intertwined in the roots of the tree were human skeletal remains.

The Green had served as an unregulated burial site for about 175 years.  Then in 1796, the new nation’s first chartered burial ground was incorporated and is still in use today.  You may remember an earlier post about the Grove Street Cemetery.  Meantime some 17,000 bodies were buried under the Green, expanding to both the Upper and Lower portions, and was still used up until 1812.  That New Haven history, ever revealing of something quirky and interesting.

So when the venerable Lincoln Oak toppled, it exposed some bones knotted up with it.  The New Haven Museum, itself founded during the Civil War in 1862, then came up with a remarkable idea.  They offered local artists branches and parts of the trunk of the toppled tree to work with any and all of the ideas in this complex knot of natural and civic history.  The results are powerful.

2014-05-03 13.04.15You can read the Gettysburg Address carved into pieces of the Oak’s trunk.  Click on the image to enlarge it.  Each chunk of the address is carved on a chunk of the tree, knotted together to form a spine in Erich Davis’ “Backbone.”

2014-05-03 13.09.35I choked up reading these familiar words carved into a tree that had come to represent New Haven and its history, a kind of backbone for this old place.  Plus Lincoln’s own strength of will served as backbone for a country divided.

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Look at this split–where the oak remained joined at the base, but split toward the top, as if recognizing a history that was unified and a divided present of the Civil War.  Here, Lincoln heads the attempts to reunify the discord.  This sculpture is Susan Clinard’s “A Nation Split.”  She used clay to add the head and hand of Lincoln to the Oak remains.

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So beautiful and elegiac–of Lincoln, of the loss of innocence of a nation, of a grand old tree that symbolized a city and the glory days of its past.

Michael Quirk, self-described as an artist, antique collector, and treasure hunter has created a work that blends history and the New Haven Museum, 114 Whitney Ave., presents "Nothing is Set in Stone: The Lincoln Oak and the New Haven Green," a tribute to the historic Lincoln Oak on the New Haven Green. It will run until Nov. 2.
In October 2012, Hurricane Sandy toppled the tree, which had been planted in 1909 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Lincoln's birth. Under the tree was found human skeletal remains.
Area artists were invited to use branches, limbs, or pieces of the trunk of the Lincoln Oak to interpret the history of the tree and the discovery of the remains. Hamden sculptor Susan Clinard, as well as Lani Asuncion, Erich Davis, Michael Quirk, Jeff Slomba, Rachael A. Vaters-Carr and Alison Walsh, participated in the exhibit.
Another component of the exhibit -- this one scientific -- consists of the results of the archaeological analysis of remains. The research was conducted by G. P Aronsen, F. Hole, Y. Tonoike, and K. A. Williamson (Yale University); N. I. Bellantoni (UConn); R. Beckett, G. Conlogue, R. Lombardo, and N. Pelletier (Quinnipiac University); J. Krigbaum (U. Florida); and L. Fehren-Schmitz (UCSC). Historical research was provided by J. Schiff (Yale University) J. Bischoff-Wurstle, and J. Campbell (New Haven Museum).
The contents of two time capsules found at the site of the fallen tree are also on display.
Details: <a href=""target=new window"></a>present.  He overtly references layers of human and natural history and creates a kind of time capsule with Lincoln memorabilia, coins, an arrowhead, news articles, and detritus from Hurricane Sandy.

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Quirk references a Cabinet of Curiosities, so popular in the 19th century for blending two passions–science and art.



At the Beineke Library, a new exhibit featuring small collections (when the large ones are splashier, more researched, etc.) has just the kind of objects that might make their way into a such a Cabinet.

Consider this “game” for glass blowing.  Really?  Yeah.  Before we coddled children, we allowed them to use blow torches and furnaces to blow glass.

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Well, so it seems, with the Gilbert Company’s highly gendered toy: “Gilbert toys bring science down to the level of boys.”

If any of you, boys or girls, actually “played” with this toy, I’d like to hear more about it!

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And imagine the knots lesbian woman had to tie themselves into to fit in a less inclusive world early in the 20th century.  But they could go to Chez Moune in Paris, the Cabaret Féminin, to be themselves, some dressing in tuxes to escort their lady friends.

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They could commemorate the experience with personalized matchbooks.  I have never seen anything quite like these and immediately wanted one for my Cabinet of Curiosities.

Untangling knots like these made for quite a day.