Math and Art

The same name for different things, or different names for the same thing?

By Jane A. Black

An installation of small art quilts Sims made with Amish women.

You have to love a guy who uses the word combinatorial. It’s not something you hear in everyday conversation – unless you hang out with mathematicians, I guess. To me, it sounds a lot like that art term, curatorial. And it turns out that both words are about making a whole out of parts, as well as arranging groups of things, in order to better understand the relationship of the parts to each other and to the whole. This idea permeates the exhibit Rhythm of Structure: Bowery and Beyond/Mathematics, Art and Poetic Reflection, on view through Nov. 1 at Antioch’s Herndon Gallery. It is mathematics, visual art and poetry, all rolled into one by curator/artist, John Sims.

This cross-pollination of ideas took hold in the fertile ground of independent thinking and educational practice that was, is, and always will be Antioch College. A Detroit native, Sims pursued three strands – math, art and community – at Antioch, and graduated in 1990 with a degree in mathematics.
“Knowing math is part of being a thinking person, of understanding what is true and not true,” said Sims. “Adopting the language of math allows us to explore the relationship of symmetry and justice.”

He describes himself as an interdisciplinary conceptualist. His career has been varied, but connected. As former coordinator of mathematics at Ringling College of Art and Design, he developed math curriculum for art students. As an artist and curator, he has mounted numerous exhibitions, including MathArt/ArtMath, co-curated with Kevin Dean in 2002. He has lectured and exhibited internationally, travelling to Hungary, Spain, Israel and Argentina.
Sims founded African American Culture Week as a student, an event that is still embraced in Yellow Springs. He continues to explore how multiple people can work together artistically. One of the features of the current exhibit is the MathematicalGraffitiWall, which allows visitors to participate in the visual aspect of the show.

The exhibit is a redux of a yearlong series Sims created at the Bowery Poetry Club in NYC in 2009. “Poetry adds the power of the human voice,” Sims said, “It makes the dialectic into a triad. It adds heart to head (math) and hand (visual art).”

Sims created a primary, iconic image to represent math/art. It is SquareRoot of a Tree, or Tree Root of a Fractal, or MathArt Brain, depending on which way it is turned. This image-that-can-be-read-three-ways is one of the triads that crop up repeatedly as Sims talks about the show. To math-art-community and head-heart-hand, he adds obsessive-theoretical-spiritual. There are also, literally, three sections to the exhibit – Geometric, Conceptual and Social.
The tree/root image is part of a group of canvases in the Geometry section of the show. Three of the canvases are by local artists Willis “Bing” Davis, Migiwa Orimo and Michael Casselli. Other artists included in this piece and/or the rest of the show are Karen Finley, DJ Spooky, Dread Scott, Ken Hiratsuka, Paulus Gerdes, John Hiigli, Vandorn Hinnant and Sol LeWitt – who Sims called his “art mentor.”

Gallery Coordinator Anne Bohlen would love to add community programming during the exhibit. “We are excited to have a show of cutting edge, New York, contemporary art here at Antioch,” she said. “We hope we will have poets, musicians and dancers developing work in response to the exhibit.” Interested parties should contact Bohlen at (937) 286-8455 or

From M.C. Escher to Charles Csuri to Chuck Close, one can certainly make an argument for the connection between math and art. But while I can balance my checkbook and keep an arts organization running in the black, math and art will always seem like kumquats and sugar cubes to me. Or, as Goethe once wrote, “Mathematicians are like Frenchmen: whatever you say to them, they translate it into their own language, and forthwith it means something entirely different.”

Jane A. Black is a fiber artist and the executive director of the Dayton Visual Arts Center. Visit the gallery at 118 N. Jefferson St. or visit their website at Follow her on Twitter @lookingabout. She can be reached at

Jane Black

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