Western Students Turn Chemistry Into Art

Mar 30, 2017

Art student Aoi Fukuyama (right) collects a sample onto a SPME fiber. Also pictured are music student Tony Mitchell (far left) and chemistry students Emily Passmore (middle left) and Taylor Grace (middle right).
Credit Andre Venter

Can you turn science into art? For the past few months, Western Michigan University students have been doing just that. They’ve taken chemical data from drinks like coffee, tea, and beer and translated it into music compositions and visual art. 

Those projects will be on display during the April Art Hop in Kalamazoo from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Park Trades Center's Saniwax Gallery.

One of the projects is a musical interpretation of mango pineapple black tea from Chocolatea in Portage - or at least its chemical makeup. The testing revealed what molecules the tea was made of and how much of each one was in it.

The result was an ambient piece using hand percussion and other unique instruments like meditation bowls and a conch shell. There was also a sculpture - a glowing bowl on a tall stand, filled with tea.

Chemistry student Paige Poindexter helped with these projects. She says that data was plotted out on a line graph - you can hear the peaks in the graph in the music:

“So that was in the music itself as it would climax and then come back down, the different drums. Then there’s actually tea in the sculpture itself. The aroma didn’t really come though - we hoped it would - but that part of it was still in there for people to see and experience that."

Music composition student Devon Andenno says a group project was good for a change because composition tends to be a solitary thing:

“You’re just writing your own music you know. No one’s really telling you what to do or you’re not really working with other people so much. But doing something like this and having to coordinate it with something visual and also like with the data, it’s a lot of collaboration and working with other people and giving and taking.”

Another group did their project on a beer from Bell’s Brewery called Smitten. Their music composition included vibraphone, alto saxophone, and beer bottles. Paige Brosofski made the visual sculpture for the project. She says it looks a little like a one of the bar graphs that came out of the testing.

“What I’m going to do is suspend molecules - the nine main molecules found in the beer - and then color the bar to show the quality, the area percentage, and the retention time. I know, lot of science,” Brosofski says.

Associate Chemistry Professor Andre Venter is one of the faculty members behind the project. He says chemistry and art have more in common than most people think. Both involve some troubleshooting, says Venter: 

“You paint something and then it’s not quite right so you make a little adjustment here and the same thing with your analysis. You make an analysis and you realize the concentrations were too high or too low or this or that. And then you fix the process and you do it again and you have to think of creative ways of addressing problems sometimes.”

Assistant Composition Professor Lisa Coons says by relating their art to chemistry, this project has forced music students to be more creative. It also makes them well-rounded. Coons says music students work hard and don’t often have a chance to talk to students outside the music school:

“Which means they’re not questioning the way they’re thinking about music, they’re not being forced to question the values that are being taught. They’re not being forced to question the prevalent aesthetics within a single institution in the same way that they are just stepping outside and talking to someone who works in a different medium or who’s in a different college.”

Chemistry student Emily Hanners says at first, it was hard for her to communicate with the artists in her group. But once they learned to speak each other’s language, they realized they had some things in common. Take metal artist Brosofski, for example.

“She actually knew a lot about the chemistry behind the metals because she uses them to make art," says Hanners. "So what kind of tool she uses with this, if she wants to use copper with this or aluminum here. It’s cool to make the connections.”

Venter says he was surprised by how beautifully the pieces turned out - and he hopes to continue the collaboration for several years.