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The Art of Chemistry

Kat Andonucci and Dr. Andy Robak, associate professor of chemistry (Photo by Erik Holmes '13)

Start with a science lab. Add one chemistry professor with self-described “wacky interests.” Introduce a visual and verbal art major with a passion for photography and painting. Mix together a variety of chemistry experiments and have the student capture them on camera or canvas. What do you get?

The Art of Chemistry, an exploration into the beauty and form caused by a variety of chemical reactions.

Robak's hand pours a luminol solution into a narrow glass tube over a 15-second exposure (Photo by Kat Andonucci '13)

Student photographer Kat Andonucci completed a year-long independent study under the guidance of Dr. Andrew Robak, associate professor of chemistry. With Robak casting the vision and directing her in each experiment, Andonucci crafted the compositions, often using a tripod, a remote shutter and a long exposure to create the images.

“We wanted to treat it as a course, the chemistry of things that are neat to look at, to have a clue what they were,” Robak said, pointing out how many science textbooks use photography to illustrate experiments. The two received a $500 grant from Keuka College’s Division of Academic Affairs to help cover costs of printing and framing the images.

Glycerol makes glass objects dipped into it appear to disappear. (Photo by Kat Andonucci '13)

When Robak went in search of a student who could help illustrate experiments that would show “the fun side of chemistry,” he contacted Melissa Newcomb, assistant professor of art. Newcomb referred him to Andonucci, sparking the creative collaboration.

“I’ve always been interested in chemistry as art or science as art. You can see from the pictures that a lot of stuff I work with is really cool,” said Robak, who holds a Ph.D. in organic chemistry. He rattled off a variety of compounds, from mercury, with its shiny metallic texture that is “really fun to play with,” to flourescein, which turns neon-green when in contact with water, to glycerol, which refracts light in a way that seems to make objects submersed in it disappear.

The hand of Erik Holmes '13, holding methane gas bubbles, a quick-second experiment shot by Andonucci '13.

Andonucci had to be sure to take several shots of each experiment, capturing images on camera as experiments were conducted several times in a row. She brought fellow visual and verbal art major Erik Holmes ’13 into the process, putting him to work as a hand model in some of the images.

Robak managed to convince Holmes to paint a graffiti mural on a concrete wall.  The mural illustrated the chemical structure of concrete itself, and gave Robak an idea for a second creative collaboration with Andonucci.  The two teamed up again on a project to create the letter code of select elements of the Periodic Table with paint created from each of the scientific elements themselves. Another Academic Excellence Initiatives grant funded this second project.

Andonucci paints the symbol for Lead.

According to Robak, all of the pigments Andonucci used to paint the periodic table symbols contain the elements.

Egyptian blue in solid form, before baking to convert it to powder form to then mix into a paint.

Using stand-alone 12×12 canvas squares painted with each element, Andonucci arranged them to hang so that some of the squares appear to be raised and some depressed, creating a more dynamic artwork. As such, the oversize work, she described as “an abstract kind of 3-D Periodic Table” could serve as a permanent reference source in a classroom or lab. In fact, the piece served as the backdrop for a National Pi Day event. Meanwhile, several of Andonucci’s images are now gracing the walls within the science center as permanent installations.

“I’ve got too many ideas and not enough artists,” Robak said. “I’m totally looking for more people to rope into these kinds of things.”

 

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