ART MATERIALIZES FROM MOLECULES, METAL
When you hear the words "quantum physics," art usually isn't the first thing that comes to mind. Long, complicated mathematical equations, strange shapes, tiny molecules — maybe those do.
Art and sculpture? Not so much.
But to sculptor Julian Voss-Andreae, a former quantum physicist, the "two very different aesthetic worlds" converge in an equation that results in his artwork.
His latest endeavor is an 8-foot sculpture commissioned by Portland Community College, to be installed at the Southeast campus in the spring.
It depicts real-life PCC student Chery Lou Weissmann, originally from the Philippines, reading a book. He says inspiration for the piece partly came from wanting to show what a college like PCC represents: hope and a place for personal growth and career.
The sculpture is still in the earlier stages of development — being rendered to perfection on the computer screen before the physical work is done.
"It takes so many hours because I'm really very careful, kind of obsessed, because I come from drawing," he says.
"When you see a cheek, for example, it's not just the cheek, but there's a slight curve out, slight curve in. So I'm really obsessed with getting every size and the right feel."
Eventually, those smaller features will be a part of a 3,500-pound stainless steel sculpture, titled "The Reader." The statue — in what has become a distinctive style in his latest series of artwork — disappears from eyesight depending on the angle of observation.
It will be placed in the open grassy area in the quad in the middle of the campus sometime in the spring, with a hopeful finish by April.
A modern sculptor
Voss-Andreae, 46, has provided other installations for Rutgers University, University of Minnesota, Texas Tech University and Scripps Research Institute and other locations.
Upon entering Voss-Andreae's Sellwood studio, it feels more like an industrial factory space, where lots of cold, metal items with hard edges are strewn about. But those are just remnants of the German-born artist's creations as a modern sculptor.
That is, he's not chiseling the human form from a block of stone, as has been the case for thousands of years of artistic creation. He's instead using computers and 3-D printers, complex computer software and lots of metal to complete the task — and, of course, some good old-fashioned physical labor.
He has a dozen 3-D printers to help him create all kinds of art. One specialty found on lots of shelves and crevices: colorful, zig-zaggy art modeled after proteins, an essential part of all living organisms.
He picks up one such piece.
"For example, this is based on a protein — when you get a bee sting, that's the stuff that hurts, because that punctures your red blood cells," he explains.
It's all about the way he views the world.
"I painted in my youth, but I really was interested in quantum physics. I read all these crazy things about relativity and more and more about quantum physics, and it's just so weird. You know, if you believe this, that the world is really that weird, you want to make sure it's actually true," he explains of his artistic compulsions.
A protein love story
Voss-Andreae journeyed to the best understanding he could by going to school. He completed eight years of quantum physics education at schools in Germany, Austria, and Scotland.
He said at first it took a long time to get good at it. He wasn't at the level of everyone else.
"It was just a really interesting experience to just not blame anybody else, but really sit down and work like 12 hours a day," he says. "But after eight years of doing that at university ... I got the big picture." And, suddenly, a life in quantum physics research was no longer in the cards.
He then met his future wife, who led him to Portland 16 years ago. She's a neuroscientist, and her work is what introduced him to proteins. One day, he looked up proteins on Google and was stunned by what he saw: two different aesthetic worlds, and the science behind the protein, and the shape and form. "I was so floored," he says.
When Voss-Andreae enrolled in college at Pacific Northwest College of Art, he wasn't sure what he was going to pursue artistically. But, one day in class, he saw another student completing a project that reminded him of a protein.
"I made the connection that I could use that idea, and that's when I started sculpture," he says.
On the surface, the PCC sculpture might seem like it has nothing to do with quantum physics outright — and it's certainly not focused on proteins. But it's the interpretation of his original goals before he left academia.
When he decided to leave quantum physics research, it was because he wanted to actually "show quantum properties for living things." But, he said, that was "way too big" of a project.
"The Reader," he says, also is inspired by a view of a human being through the lens of quantum physics.
When the sculpture is approached from the side, it appears to consist of solid steel, but when viewed head-on, the structure nearly disappears because of the thin stainless steel plates.
Voss-Andreae says: "In my world view, you take for granted that this stuff is actually there and solid. Both are not true in quantum physics. It's neither there nor solid. And that's kind of shocking."
It might not be a real human being, but it's about as close as he can get communicating that world view through art.