Recently Fred McCoy of creativefluff.com and I have been corresponding. They (probably Katherine O’Brien) are interested in doing a review of my geometric art, so I sent a DVD of some work and, belatedly, a bio. It was interesting to sit down and think through how my work developed, and I thought you might like to read it, too.
I apologize for the delay. For the last six years I’ve been a programmer supporting research in security applications, mostly for first responders. Our funding runs out at the end of October, so I’ve been scrambling to find another job as the economy collapses around us. Fortunately a place has opened up supporting computational genetics research at Dartmouth Medical School, so I’m out of panic mode and looking forward to a new area of learning.
It is kind of interesting how I got into this. I never expected to be an artist — I entered first grade the year the Soviets launched Sputnik, and the emphasis was on science and engineering throughout my schooling. I did enjoy taking photographs and experimenting in the darkroom. My father would bring home surplus military supplies — I remember huge cans of wide aerial surveillance film, sheets of micro-ruled film for making moire patterns, and high-contrast printing paper — that I would use to make internegatives so I could print a negative on top of its positive, emphasizing edges, and other experiments like that to transform images as we do in Photoshop today. I recall putting a flashlight bulb and battery on a string hanging from the ceiling and weighting it in different places, then taking a time exposure from the floor as it swung in the darkened room. That pattern was used in an ad in my high school yearbook.
I studied physics at MIT, but when it was time to finish up and graduate, I didn’t seem to be able to go the last mile. We had to do a senior thesis. I’d talk to a professor about some project, and then find that I just couldn’t go back. So I finally left it hanging and became a COBOL programmer for a few years.
One day I was reading about psychological experiments where people were shown ambiguous shapes, somewhere between a square and a circle, if I recall correctly. If they had been previously viewing a square, they tended to see the shape as a square, if they had been viewing a circle, they saw it as a circle. I wondered if that tendency was modifiable — if you could learn to see things instantly as a confluence of qualities, and not just click into an identification based on your current set. I envisioned a computer program that could draw geometric patterns that would vary on two parameters, so that when you adjusted either parameter, the whole pattern changed, but in some continuous, recognizable way. I saw it like an Etch-a-sketch, with two knobs to turn. As you slowly turned one knob, the whole pattern would change in some way, but continuously. Each possible pattern would be like a point in the two-dimensional space represented by the knobs. The user could play with moving the pattern through a given point along different paths, and perhaps learn to see a given pattern as a special case of a higher-dimensional pattern. (This was the 70’s. That’s where our heads were.)
I needed a computer to try out the idea, but this was before personal computers were available. Aha! MIT had computers, and I still had to do a thesis. I found Andy diSessa, a former physicist who now studied learning, and he agreed to sponsor the project. By the time the thesis was done, I was short of my goal but had developed an interesting little computer language for making geometric patterns, which I submitted as TILER: A Geometric Pattern Generator as a Tool for Exercising Holistic Perception.
During the development of TILER, I discovered that outside of the world of COBOL report generation, programming was pretty interesting. So, degree in hand, I went out into the world to earn a living as a computer programmer, and geometric patterns went into abeyance for years as I got married and raised a family. Though I mainly worked on embedded systems (printer mechanisms, medical devices, audio workstations, motion controllers and the like) I always took advantage of any opportunity to work on the image generation portion of a project, if there was one. Developing test patterns and color halftone patterns for inkjet printers, for example.
Gradually technology was catching up with my interests. Personal computers, painting programs and digital cameras became available. I used a plugin called Terrazzo to create tiling patterns from photographs, and it reminded me of the fun I had doing the thesis, trying to find, for example, what qualities of a pattern in a triangle would result in an interesting emergent pattern when that triangle was repeated in different configurations. When doing the thesis, I had taken inspiration from J. Bourgoin’s 1879 book (available from Dover) ARABIC GEOMETRICAL PATTERN & DESIGN. Later, as the kids were growing up, our family would color in the patterns. Staring at one of the patterns at lunch one day, I wondered if you could look at the lines not as the pattern itself, but as indicators of what a representative line would do if transformed according to an underlying reflection pattern. (I know this sounds vague, but you can see what I mean by looking at all of my work.) This is what Terrazzo did, but only for the very simplest, kaleidoscope-like patterns. Maybe some of the complex Arabic geometric patterns would be susceptible to the same treatment, which would mean finding a way to make many different shapes fit together, while still keeping the image continuous.
Several lunches later, I had worked out on scraps of paper how to build one of Bourgoin’s patterns from reflected triangles and I was dying to try it out in Photoshop. But scripting the transformations in Photoshop took many months of evenings and weekends. In the end, it worked, and I began to work out which kinds of patterns were susceptible to this treatment. I found that initially drawing the patterns in a CAD program was much easier than working with a protractor and calculator. Over time the process became smoother, and now I have perhaps a hundred different transformations I can apply to an image.
My daughters both have artistic abilities and I thought I’d provide a model for them of how to make an income from art as a sideline. Ha! Some model. A mere babe in the woods I have been. I learned how to print, mat and frame. I’d take these things around to craft fairs, which is a pain and a lot of fun. I loved being part of a creative community, having a foot in the art and craft world, seeing how other people solved (more or less well) their problems and found a way to keep going. But make money I didn’t. I kept shifting my ground trying one thing and then another, so that although I had sales, I always had an expensive inventory of works from my previous attempts. I developed a line of greeting cards with the original photo on one side and the pattern on the other, which sells pretty well when I promote it. My brother sold them door-to-door for a while, which was great for me, but rough for him in the hot Albuquerque sun. But taking the time to promote subtracts from my limited spare time to develop and create, and I certainly can’t quit my job (my wife is quite clear on this) while paying for my daughters’ college. So for now I have cut my expenses to almost nothing by offering my works on line at print-on-demand web sites, Imagekind and RedBubble for prints, and Cafepress for clothing. I would love to license some of the repeating patterns for gift wrap, wall paper, fabric and the like, but have not found anyone interested yet.
Artistically, my interest remains what it was in the beginning. I love patterns that seem to be one thing but that become something else as your eye follows a path through the image. I love the way you see one arrangement, then suddenly the whole pattern clicks over into another arrangement. What makes that happen? What makes one person see one range of organizations and another person another? I love the different qualities that emerge as you view a work from different distances. I love the little figures of people and animals that pop out with whole stories attached, capture your attention for a moment, then fade back into the clouds.
I just like organic geometric patterns a lot, and they seem to capture and represent the way my mind works more precisely than anything else I have produced.
Thanks for your interest, Fred. I look forward to finding what someone else sees in my work. It has been fun putting together this review. I think I’ll publish it on the blog.
Douglas P. Hill