It’s back-to-school time for college students. I vaguely remember the feeling – having to trudge a mile through the snow for “Spring Term” classes, having to take requirements I’d avoided in the Fall, having to trudge back to my dorm long after the sun had gone done. Oh, poor me!
Sophomore year was the worst. I’d decided to get my math requirement out of the way, which was not the easiest thing for an art student to do at Washington U. You either had to take calculus with the Pre-meds or you had to take baby math with the hippie artists. I opted for the latter.
“Topics in Mathematics,” as the course was officially called, turned out to be a scream. It was here that I learned to mix a drink (properly), to fill in a checkerboard using three (rather than two) values, and to color a map. I breezed through all of it. And – shame on me – I was snickering the whole time.
I couldn’t wait to tell my father about baby math. Dad was mathematics supervisor for the Omaha Public Schools at the time. But his response surprised me. “That map coloring,” he said. “That’s pretty important stuff.”
Forty years later, I’ve discovered Dad was right. My illustrations are made up of hundreds of colored shapes positioned adjacent to one another, much like countries on a map. Sometimes like-colored objects touch, so I have to tweak the colors or the number of objects or both.
Fortunately, I’m not in the business of creating maps, so no need to invent new countries. (Let us be grateful for that!) But I am rendering real places and trying to represent them as authentically as I can. And “Map Coloring Principle” comes in handy. Recently I Googled it and learned that it really is a thing. What’s more, it was a very important thing when I learned it at Wash U. Just two years prior, the mathematicians Kenneth Appel and Wolfgang Haken had proven the Four-color theorem, refining the century-old Five-color principle. It was the first theorem proven via computer.
About the same time Appel and Haken were proving the Four-color theorem, a man named Josef Albers was being laid to rest. Albers was an artist and color theorist, best known for his paintings of nested squares. The renowned St. Louis painter Bill Kohn taught me about Albers…and so much more. I was taking color theory from Mr. Kohn the same time I was enrolled in baby math.
With the help of Josef Albers, Kohn taught me about the temperature of color. The hue, the value, the intensity. What happened to a color as it moved forward or backward in a plane. What happened to the line inferred by the meeting of two colors. Yellow could be made to look cool, Kohn taught me. Blue could be made to look warm. You just had to learn to see.
A few weeks ago, I went to the print show at the St. Louis Art Museum. I had studied so many of the artists – Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein. But what really blew me away was getting to see Albers’ nested squares for the first time since college. One square inside the other, inside the other, inside the other. Four colors that would have looked completely different were they not touching.
Colors affect one another. And so do disciplines. It is only because of the work of scientists, mathematicians, and other artists that I can make sense of the world and put it down on paper for others to see. So, to Appel, Haken, Albers, Kohn, and the poor teacher’s assistant who got stuck teaching “Topics in Mathematics,” a much-belated thank you.
Thanks also to Dear Old Dad. You were right about Map Coloring Principle. And so much more. It really is important stuff.
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