Ela Kurowska is a Canadian scientist-turned-artist who utilizes scientific principles to create Light Forms, a photography art project exploring the abstract origins of life using the photoelastic effect. Read her story from the beginning and learn more about the process in part one and part two.
“Art Can Make Engineering Beautiful”
Ela Kurowska’s art pieces exist at an interesting intersection between art and science, combining the two disciplines. Light Forms are created using scientific principles, and are showcased in art galleries and photography contests. Most of the art pieces have names derived from Latin, paying homage to taxonomical naming conventions and giving viewers the freedom to interpret the art without being influenced by the name. But when the images are viewed by those in the art community and the science community, the reactions are quite different.
“A layperson usually doesn’t want to know anything about how it’s all made” Ela laughed. She’s found people who are not scientists or engineers can be intimidated by the science behind her art. As a general rule, they don’t want their impression or interpretation of her photographs to be spoiled by knowing the techniques used to create them. Scientists and engineers, on the other hand, are always extremely interested in her process, and Ela often fields questions from them. Is the subject of the image a huge sculpture, or is it a microscopic organism? Are they looking at a flower? A fish? What is it, exactly? What process does she use to create the organic gels? What is the photoelastic effect? Where does the light come from? Ela enjoys both responses: as long as people are engaging with her art, she’s happy.
All art is subjective, but Ela wants her images to cheer people up. Or at least gift them with a better appreciation of nature. “The images are not exactly what the viewers are familiar with, but there is something familiar about them,” Ela explained. “They look like life. There’s this magic moment I see when the models come to life when viewed through the camera lens. But it happens only when the light is right.” Unlike in most still photography, the light in Light Forms images is not just directed onto the object. The compositions glow from within, seemingly with their own light. That inner light, that glow, makes it easier to believe the biomorphic shapes are truly alive.
While I was researching Ela for this article, a coworker looked over my shoulder and asked what he was seeing. Once I explained the Light Forms art and techniques to him, he said, “Wow, it’s like finite element analysis (FEA) in art form!” I asked Ela what she thought of that statement. While she acknowledged the similarities between the two, she said that Light Forms can’t be used for quantitative stress analysis. “Light Forms images are more complex because they embrace so many other elements; the light, the beauty, the vitality, the unpredictability, all the attributes of life,” Ela said. “Images produced by FEA are perfect. My objects have imperfections.” Ela believes that those imperfections are what makes people stop and look at her photographs.
Art and science have long been considered as separate or opposing disciplines, but Ela wants to change that. “There is no contradiction between these two. I would love for people to better understand how the connection between art and science can produce creative and beautiful things.”
Does Ela consider herself more of an artist or a scientist? She acknowledges that she would not be able to create her art without a background in science. The idea of Light Forms would not have crossed her mind if it was not for her knowledge of biochemistry. And she views science in a different way than many of the artists she meets. “I’ve seen artists that try to use science, but they were artists first and they tried to learn science later,” she said. “I think learning science first and taking up art later is more interesting because you understand so much more about the processes going on inside the material you are using. And you’re aware of the possibilities, of what you can do.”
Ela considers herself lucky, as a scientist, to have found art on her own. She believes if more scientists and engineers looked to art as a source of inspiration, it could enrich their work. “Contemplating art gives you a different state of mind. Art can make engineering beautiful.”
The most important message Ela wants to impart to the science and engineering community is this: “You can really use art in your work. By interacting with art, your brain can change its way of thinking, and that enrichment makes you more creative, opens up new associations and new possibilities.”
Look into the depths of one of the Light Forms, one of the images in Ela’s collections. What do you see? A woman tossing her hair back in the air? A planet being born? A cell splitting? An art piece? A science project? All of the above? You’re correct.
Thank you to Ela Kurowska for taking the time to discuss her background, her process, and Light Forms. You can learn more about Ela and Light Forms on her website. All images courtesy of Ela Kurowska.