Creating Math + Art

Authored by: WAG Staff on January 19, 2014

Bertram Brooker, Four Dimensional Cube, n.d. Collection of the Winnipeg Art Gallery. 2006-85

Art and mathematics make such seemingly strange bedfellows that it is impossible not to confront this belief when discussing Math + Art. People do not expect these two disciplines to be mixed. Selecting pieces for a show on math and art is challenging, precisely due to this fact. If it doesn't seem mathematical enough, people will wonder why it is in the show. It is too mathematical, people will wonder if it is art.

Fortunately, the WAG's collection includes artworks by well known artists that are very mathematical. A good example is Bertram Brooker's drawing Four Dimensional Cube. How can it not be mathematical, with that title?! As an added bonus, Brooker is a well known Canadian artist, whose painting Sounds Assembling was featured in the 100 Masters exhibit.  Mathematically, the work is very accurate, which is an impressive feat considering the difficulty of visualizing a four dimensional cube.

On the other hand, one of the goals of Math + Art was to have students interact with the mathematics curriculum through art. Our mission is to get students excited about math and to make them less afraid of it. However, talking about four dimensional cubes does not make students less apprehensive about math!  Are there other pieces in the exhibition that contain math that students from grades 1 - 12 can interact with?

The answer is a resounding yes. One example is Micah Lexier's All Numbers Are Equal (Four Ways). Lexier has created four rows of nine prints, where each row contains the digits one through nine. The digit one is left unchanged in all four rows. The other digits are cut so that their surface area equals the surface area of the digit one. The direction of the cut changes in earch row, hence the title of the piece. A student might ask, "Is it art?". This is not a silly question, as many students have never been introduced to conceptual art, and this leads to a discussion of conceptual art and to the meaning, or goal, of Lexier's work.

What about the mathematics? It's obvious that this piece is mathematical, because it has numbers in it. However, you may be surprised as to the number of questions that are prompted by this piece. For example, is value the only way we classify numbers? What about odd and even numbers? Prime numbers? Why do we care about which numbers are even, or odd, or prime?  Are there only four ways to cut the numbers? Can you think of another way? Is the surface area the same for all numbers (not just the numbers in each row)? Can you explain why? What would need to happen to preserve the equality of surface area if I made one number bigger?  With older students, this piece is a great way to see probability and permutations outside of the classroom. For example, if I randomly reordered the top row, what is the probability that the one is still on the left? What about if I reordered all of the rows, what is the probability the left column is all ones? How many ways can you shuffle the digits (prints) in one row? All four rows? 

Math + Art is a great opportunity to bring an art or math class to the WAG. Students that visit the exhibition will learn more about both disciplines, through our interactive and inquiry-based school programs. However, students are not the only ones who get to interact with the pieces in Math + Art. We have developed a series of activity cards that are placed next to several works in the show. As you visit Math + Art, try your hand at answering the artistic and mathematical questions yourself!


Dallas Clement recently graduated from UBC with a BSc Honors Math and Physics. He is a program facilitator at the WAG and an artist. He served as a mathematical consultant for Math + Art.

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