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Mathemalchemy Gallery: Celebrating the intersection of art and mathematics

Oftentimes, math and art as subjects might seem like oil and water. Ingrid Daubechies and Dominique Ehrmann, however, sought to bridge a gap between the two mediums, creating an unconventional art gallery to settle in at BU’s 808 gallery.

After three years of hard work by 24 artists and mathematicians, the Mathemalchemy Gallery is finally on display at BU. Conceived by Daubechies, professor of mathematics and electrical and computer engineering at Duke University, and Erhmann, a fiber artist and fiber sculptor, the whimsical installation celebrates the underlying beauty of mathematics and art.

Two people standing and looking at an art installation
Two people viewing the Mathemalchemy art installation at 808 Gallery. The gallery was created over three years by a team of 24 artists and mathematicians blending their ideas and passions. FIONA BROADIE/DFP STAFF

“[Ingrid] helped me understand how math is the basis of imagination — the structure, the color [and] the poetry,” Ehrmann said.

By 2020, Daubechies and Ehrmann’s ambitious “Mathemalchemy” project was underway. Then, the Covid-19 pandemic ultimately canceled any chance the team had to meet in person. Migrating to Zoom, the team charged on with the project, unwilling to let the pandemic change their plans.

“Let’s do it anyway. Let’s not postpone. Let’s not cancel,” Daubechies said.

Over the course of a year and a half, the team collaborated through remote design and building workshops. Everybody worked from home and built their individual art pieces. In spite of their challenges, Ehrmann said they were “lucky” to have the added time the pandemic provided.

“At first, the [timeline] was supposed to be nine months. I’m not sure I would have been able to help [the team] create such an advanced piece in nine months,” Ehrmann said. “Because we had time, I had time to know [the members] more as human beings, so then I knew where to see the talent we could use in the collaboration.”

Daubechies said the team “worked on it as a social community.”

“We became a little bit of a family,” Daubechies said. “It was a way of having a project that was joyful, cheerful [and] collaborative.”

Li-Mei Lim, research assistant professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at BU and collaborator on the exhibit, said the team was “supportive.”

“People were … excited to make things work, and just always thinking of ways to add more richness into the exhibit,” Lim said.

Besides its name, the exhibition’s mathematical beauty is also interwoven, literally, within the pieces. The blue-hued quilt is made of multiple fabric blocks including encrypted Morse code, for instance.

“People have this perception that either you’re a math person or you’re not,” Lim said. “People sometimes think, for whatever reason, very automatically, that they can or cannot do one or the other.”

Ehrmann said working on the exhibit changed her and “the way I will work for the rest of my artist life.”

“That group, everybody was teaching everybody,” said Ehrmann. “We all had to learn from each other.”

Daubechies said she hopes the exhibit will inspire younger people who might be intimidated by mathematics.

“It’s meant for so many people who have spent so many hours studying mathematics at school and still never liked it, never got in touch with what it really is,” Daubechies said.

The exhibition will remain at the 808 Gallery until March 4, 2023. Afterwards, it will travel to Vancouver and, eventually, permanently reside at Duke University.

“I’m definitely very proud to have it here,” Lim said. “[I’m] really excited that I get to share it with my colleagues and my students, and my home.”


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