An unconventional sculptor (and a marine biology student) on bridging the art-and-science divide.
By Virginia M. Wright
Rockland artist Kim Bernard roams the intersection of art and science, and she enjoys taking others along for the ride. Curious about the laws of motion, she once strung metal balls from a gallery ceiling and invited viewers to nudge them into harmonic waves. Another time, she fashioned discarded inner tubes and springs into cubes that quiver when slapped. At Harvard last year, she and a team of physics students raced a square-wheeled sailboat in Cambridge’s wacky World Sculpture Race (they lost). This fall, as University of New England’s first artist in residence, she’s charged with leading classroom and extracurricular activities to create science-inspired art. To introduce herself to students (and find recruits for her projects), she stationed herself at the George and Barbara Bush Center, a campus social hub, and offered henna tattoos to anyone who wanted one. Over six days, she tattooed nearly 100 students, including marine biology major Grayson Szczepaniak, who arrived with a design in hand and her arm taped up from a volleyball injury. We eavesdropped as the two discussed henna chemistry, kinetic sculptures, floating tiny houses, and arty pranks — and the chat seemed like a fine intro to Bernard’s aesthetic and philosophy.
Bernard: So, what are you about and what kind of tattoo would you like? You came with a design, but it’s not too late for me to create something for you.
Szczepaniak: I chose this one because I like the way it builds off the center. I’ve been through a lot lately. It’s my senior year, and the stress is kicking in, but I always come back to the center.
Bernard: That’s really important — I’m going to work with your design. So, this is homemade henna, the real stuff: powder from the shrub, lemon juice (that’s the acidic that turns it into a temporary dye), essential oil (eucalyptus, in this case), and sugar (which helps it seep into the skin). There’s some chemistry and some biology, and a lot of students who’ve come here are way more knowledgeable about it than I am.
Szczepaniak: What other projects are you doing this semester?
Bernard: This afternoon, there’s an info session for an amphibious tiny house: one that can be floated, trailered, or parked.
Szczepaniak: I love tiny houses! I want to live in one so bad.
Bernard: We’ll start working on a design soon. We have to consider regulations like town ordinances — can we put it on a mooring? — and specs for traveling on the road. We need art- and design-inclined students to make everything multi-functional, because your worktable may also be your bed. Marine science students will contribute to the systems: Maybe there’s a holding tank for waste that’s composted for a garden. And the house will need to filter rainwater and desalinate ocean water and produce its own energy. We need business and entrepreneurial students to make it low-budget and mass-producible, because it shouldn’t be so expensive that only rich people can have it, right? Aquarium science students are getting involved, because it will have a glass or Plexiglas floor. You’ll be able to look down at marine life and an underwater garden.
Szczepaniak: You’re describing my dream house! I’d love to contribute my thoughts on climate change and energy.
Bernard: The goal is to design it and build a scale model. There’s no way we’ll be able to build it this semester, but I might have a grant-writing team to research funding for that step.
Szczepaniak: You said you have a yoga sticker on your car. How long have you been practicing?
Bernard: Eight years, but I’ve been doing different kinds of movement my whole life — dance, martial arts, yoga. About 10 years ago, I stopped looking at my movement practice as separate from my visual practice. My sculpture is all about the exploration of movement.
Szczepaniak: Does that mean people are your sculpture? Or is the sculpture itself mechanical?
Bernard: Sometimes it’s kinetic sculpture, sometimes it’s mark-making, sometimes it’s video, and sometimes it’s me hanging from a cable, so it’s sort of performance-like. It’s led me to an interest in physics as a way to understand the principles of movement.
And that leads me to the next project: I’m encouraging students to go to the shore and collect ocean debris. I’ve already filled two garbage bags with golf balls, bottles, a sneaker, a gift card (I haven’t checked to see how much money is on it), ceramic chunks, Styrofoam. Much of it will get repurposed into a kinetic wave sculpture modeled after an actual wave. Students will help shred it, twist it into rope, and install it.
Szczepaniak: That. Is. Fabulous!
Bernard: Tonight, after our meeting, I’m going to send all of you out to round up all the Adirondack chairs on campus and create a sculpture by stacking them. In the morning, when people come on campus, they’re going to say, “What is this?” I hope it will turn into a weekly art-invasion club of creative pranksters making sculptures or flash mobs or whatever you make of it. I want students to have engaging, memorable experiences and to create, design, and involve their own interests to learn something new — that’s my mission.
Bernard will give a public lecture about her work and science-inspired art on Dec. 1., 5–7 p.m., in the St. Francis Room of UNE’s Jack S. Ketchum Library (11 Hills Beach Rd., Biddeford; 207-283-0171). She’s one of nine artists featured in the exhibition ENCAUSTIC — wax+heat, through Dec. 9 in the H. Allen and Sally Fernald Art Gallery of the University of Maine Hutchinson Center (80 Belmont Ave., Belfast; 207-338-8000).