Trudy Reagan: Essential Mysteries

by Alex Morris

Alex Morris (AM): What inspired you to create art about science?

Trudy Reagan (TR): Well, I was in love with a physicist. And he didn't much like art. But he said, "that doesn't matter, he'll do it anyway." I was fortunate to have a mate that loved talking about not only his work but about things that he found interesting about physics. So for instance around 1971 he was telling me about these theoretical objects called "black holes." And since it was unseeable of course, I had to try to visualize it, in a block print. It's in my book. I had a physicist around the house who could explain how sound from phonograph gets transmitted to electric signals that get transmitted to loudspeakers, you know, it made my life richer. The thing is that I did come from a scientific family. My father was a geologist at the Geological Survey. And I had a great aunt who was a physiologist who taught at Goucher College. And my father's brother was teaching Chemistry at Barnard so, you know. But they didn't talk about science the way my husband did. He would have been a great teacher if he wasn't so shy.

AM: Were there any figures, like professors or mentors, who influenced you, including your husband?

TR: Well, actually, at Stanford, there was a young professor. He was challenging us to use all kinds of different media and to use a kind of problem solving. It's called problem-based education now. He would pose a problem, like create a sculpture using light. And he had a good friend who came and taught for a quarter at Stanford. And that person, whose name is Ivan Matrikov, and he put me on to a professor named Gyrgy Kepes, and it was called the new landscape. It was the outgrowth of an exhibit he had put on at MIT--an art exhibit using science images. Some of them were photographs, especially micrographs, and also diagrams. He had diagrams from other cultures in the book. They were quite fascinating. And so that got me outside the mindset of abstract expressionism, where you don't allow content into your work. You just go with the qualities of the paint. And I realized that geologic maps, which are quite colorful and I had seen in my childhood. And also, his mineralogist friend had showed us samples under polaroid light of minerals that were just gorgeous. This could be art, and the geologic maps had legends to tell you what all the different colors meant. So that is very content-rich for a visualization. And so one of my first pieces--I was really soured on painting. I spent a short time as an art student at what has now become the San Francisco Art Institute, and I was quite put off by the macho young men who were painters and the whole abstract expressionism frame that everything was being put in. Anyways, I latched onto Batik, which was another way for me to use my drawing skill and love of color. And one of the first pieces I did was called "Animal, Vegetable, and Mineral" which had 18 examples from nature of hexagons in nature. Beside the piece, I had legends, just like the map legends, so that people could tell what these things were.

From left to right: 'Energy Becomes Matter', 'Synchrony Prevails', 'Life Creates'

AM: Can you tell me about Ylem?

TR: I would put up a piece like my "Animals, Vegetables, and Minerals" and people would say "oh that's pretty" and walk right by it. And I was getting pretty frustrated. I was intellectually lonely. I've been a member of a few pretty stimulating women's groups like the Peninsula Stitchery Guild. And I saw how they were set them up and how they kept themselves going. And I thought I could start a study group about patterns in nature and things in science and so on like that. And this is already in my head in 1979, and at that point I was involved in the Crafts and Fine Arts Movement and was a founding member of the California Craft Museum which actually started in Palo Alto and later moved to San Francisco. It's kind of morphed into the Craft Gallery that was most recently in SoMA. Anyway, the city of Palo Alto was sponsoring a class for employees who were looking for grants about how to submit proposals for grants. They invited us to sit in on that and that gave me the idea that you can not only have an organization but you could have one that was a non-profit that could benefit its members by being an umbrella organization for projects and things like that. So with that mindset I was primed to do something. I had a few friends that I met through the Craft's Museum that were using science in their art. I had one, a jeweler. I already knew 6 or eight people that would be interested in this. And then comes along this guy from out of town named Harold Perlmutter. He came out here from Princeton and he was already deeply into whatever little there was about computer graphics and knew some heroes out here like Theodore Nelson, who started the idea of putting literature on what we had before the internet. And Alvy Ray Smith, who was an animator who eventually went to work for Pixar. So he sponsored evenings and my mind was blown. It was a whole new world for me. I had seen in Physics Today an issue that had on the cover "How Computer Graphics Will Change Physics" and so I was already curious about this. I was collecting images from science magazines that were all kinds of ways of visualizing what they were talking about and quite fascinating subjects. So I was meeting all of these interesting people. They were from the home brew computer club. So at intermission they would go around and tell what their projects were and the names of all of these computer languages. It was really a learning curve for me. Keep in mind they were interested in what I was doing. In a smaller group I showed off some of my art and they understood it. This was gonna be my group. Of course it was far too technical for what I wanted to do. So I started my own group and that's Ylem.

AM: What does "Ylem" mean?

TR: It's a word that was coined about 1949 to express the idea of the primordial stuff that blew up in the big bang--matter energy. There's quite a history behind that whole idea but in this case it was George Gamoff? and his students that were working on it. And, you know, they had known about the expansion of the universe since about 1935 or 1940 and they were just kind of running the movie backwards and realizing it could have started from a single point. I loved the word. I love words with strange letters in them. I had actually made an alphabet called the scientist's alphabet that had things in it like turgor and syzygy and so ylem was on the list and so I just called it ylem and of course nobody could pronounce it. Nobody knew what it was and so they said you better put something with it so that people know what the group is about so that's how it became Ylem: Artists using Science and Technology. If you want to know more about Ylem and the wonderful forums that we had--they were very much like TED talks today, just go to and you'll see there's a lot of history and also in the February issue of Leonardo last year, we had a nice little history written up with sketches.

AM: What do you think it means to be an artist in this age of technology today? You touched on some of your friends and colleagues in the early days of computers and the internet, and obviously as a society were have integrated more and more technology into our lives.

TR: I'd have to think about that. The interconnectivity and the capabilities of that technologies are letting us do...I mean you could read a novel by Bruce Sterling, do the futurist thing, but I haven't given that a lot of thought.

From left to right: 'Number Governs Form', 'Brains Imagine', 'All is Interwingled'

AM: It sounds like you have spent a lot of time thinking about or relating to nature. I'm wondering if you can share with me one thing I have learned from nature.

TR: You know, we used to camping all the time, especially in the high country behind Yosemite Valley and I've had some wonderful spiritual experiences out in nature but I don't know how that pertains to this. My art connection with the natural world has been in finding the patterns in plants and animals that have a mathematical basis or were just especially beautiful. The other realization that I had was--back when my children were small I would be making scrapbooks for them andI would be going through all the kinds of magazines. One of the things I was able to do was amass quite a collection of different kinds of patterns. Snaky rivers and cellular things and stress diagrams and materials and so on. At that time I was very interested in line quality. I had worked at the Geological Survey on contour maps so I had a bunch of that. And dragonfly wings. I had a collection of dragonfly wings. You kind of get the idea. At one point I just started pinning them up on the wall and seeing how the cellular ones could relate a little bit to the contour maps. I actually make a circle of patterns in which each related to each other. It wasn't linear. You had to seem them all kind of together to realize the connections between them. I actually did a skirt that used these patterns in that way. The next pivotal book was called "Patterns in Nature". It came about 1973 or 1976. Peter Stevens. So apparently there was a group at MIT that was studying this in depth. And one of the things he said was, "Nature has a limited vocabulary. There are about six main groups of things. Sinusoidal forms and networks, like that." And I thought, hey, I study this too. This is great. He's telling about branching patterns, what possible use is that to trees, and so on. There's been several more really good books that came out on this. So that became kind of a specialty of mine.

AM: Wow, that's incredible. There are so many amazing patterns I see around me in nature all the time.

TR: I was just looking today at an orchid that had a linear pattern on each petal.

AM: Wow. So, I really like your stained glass-reminiscent paintings on plexiglass. I hope to see them in person someday. Can you tell me a little about this work and what inspired it?

TR: Well, when I was doing batik I got the idea for things that could hang in windows. And it was quite striking. After about five years they faded. It was really heartbreaking. So I thought, well that's dye. Dye fades. I'll try to do something in pigments. The other thread here is that one reason I like batik is I like colored lines on white backgrounds. I had done block printing and scratchboard and so that was something that was there for me to draw. I thought it would be interesting to do it on plexiglass but the only paint I knew about was horribly toxic. Then there was a demonstration video from one of the paint companies that told how to do acrylic paint on plexiglass and the light came on. The trick is to roughen the plexiglass so the paint will stick and to use a hardener solution that you put in the paint to make it work on rigid surfaces. I've been very, very pleased with the range of things I can do with it. I could get a lot finer drawing--I love to draw--a lot finer drawings in that medium because I would be scratching through the paint to get those white lines and they have very definite edges. The other thing was that the first idea that I had was a globe-shaped radiolarian that has a crystalline structure around it. And I found that a way to get lines carving through the paint was with a small rotary tool called a dremel tool. And I could actually carve crystalline things into the plexiglass. It was just a fantastic effect. So I used that on a couple of my paintings. And the other things that I liked about it was that those lines that I carved through the paint were very bright white and then you combine that with the colors and the completely opaque dense black. It was a terrific range of values.

AM: How has your perspective of science and technology changed over your career?

TR: I think the biggest change was the burgeoning of the chaos and complexity study. Of course the first intonation we had of that was in the early 80s was fractales. And it spoke to a lot of us because we all knew there were a lot of irregularities in nature that seemed to be inherent. Mandelbrot put out a flyer about his book "The Fractal Geometry of Nature" which he described as the "mathematics of wiggles." Later he modified it to be something less silly but I loved that description.

There were studies of avalanches and things like that. When is the next avalanche going to happen? This is a whole area where you don't have the predictability that you do in physics, when you're studying weather and the economy and things like that. There's this hilarious book "The Eu Demonic Pie". This was the group down at UC Santa Cruz with Ralph Abraham, studying what Abraham called dynamical systems. They were figuring out that they could use these systems to go to Las Vegas with a computer and their shoes. They had a couple accomplices with this. One was a woman who had a computer in her bra. They would find a roulette table with some sort of irregularity and then they would bet there and they were doing well. The "demonic pie" idea was that they would split their winnings among each other. But they kept putting their money back into proving their system. The gal that had either the computer or little radio receiver in her bra actually got a burn.

In preparation for my book I had to read a lot more about this stuff, and it is a fascinating area. And that is probably where art is going too because it's going to be spinning off of some of the irregularities in a big way.

From left to right: 'Turbulence', 'Mindx Have Wanderlust'

AM: What advice do you have for young artists?

TR: Well I'm old school. I think that they should learn to draw. And perceive the world. from their own eyeballs and get a feeling of what paint and so on can do. The animators that do things like ray-tracing of light hitting objects and stuff--those algorithms are all written by people who had art. So there's a basic language of vision that they need to have a grasp of so they don't just turn out complete nonsense.

AM: Could you describe yourself in three words?

TR: Well I once had a slogan: art, science, spirit. I'm a Quaker so I am a practicing religious person. And I'm also a political activist, but that's another story.

AM: What do you wish to see more of, if anything, in the art world?

TR: Well, I think engagement with real emotional problems. There's a winery called Hess Winery. It's near Napa and the man who's collected things that are very, well you could say, emotionally heavy works, and some Kiefer. He's got some wonderful Anselm Kiefer. I notice that a lot of them have been through a war or experience of political oppression. And the work is very, very interesting. And it's work that is needed, especially right now. I try, in my own way, to grapple with these issues. There's a set of drawings I did--they are on my website, about El Salvador. I can't remember if I got the English name or the Spanish name for the set--but the English translation is "I can't tell you the very worst." I was trying to visualize what this El Salvadorian helper was telling me about why she had to leave her country. And it's, you know, horrendous.

Trudy Reagan's website: