Although art and mathematics are often thought of as incompatible disciplines, artist Dorothea Rockburne draws from both fields. Rockburne, an abstract painter, is heavily influenced by mathematical concepts. 

Rockburne presented a lecture entitled “Materializing Mathematical Concepts into Visual Art” on Monday evening. During her speech, she discussed her life, inspirations, techniques and viewpoints.

“When I taught, I always said that being an artist is like having a dog in New York. If you don’t have to do it, don’t do it,” she said. 

However, Rockburne’s passion for art trumped the many challenges she faced while embarking on her career.

“I was working all kinds of jobs at once, plus I had a child,” said Rockburne. “I didn’t have the money to buy art supplies—they’re expensive. I went across the street to the hardware store and bought gallons of crude oil.”

Rockburne, whose exhibit “A Gift of Knowing: The Art of Dorothea Rockburne” is currently on display at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, has utilized many non-traditional methods in her work.

“This particular show relates to works in our collection, that’s for sure,” said Joachim Homann, the curator of the Museum. “We have the expertise to show [Rockburne’s] work, but the motivation to show this exhibition, really, is the academic involvement that it generates.”

Rockburne was brought to Bowdoin by Professor of Mathematics Jennifer Taback through a mutual friend, Dave Peifer, a professor of mathematics at the University of North Carolina Asheville. Peifer has researched the works of Max Dehn, a prominent geometrist and expert in topology; Dehn was one of Rockburne’s teachers at Black Mountain College. 

“Certainly [Rockburne] says [Dehn] influenced her,” said Peifer, noting Dehn’s influence on many different artists in the subject areas of topology and geometry.

“One of the reasons I’m so really thrilled to be here is that most mathematicians, not all, do not understand what I’m doing, nor do critics,” Rockburne said. “They think it’s beautiful work they’re looking at and that’s not interesting to me. I’m interested in finding out about how the universe ticks, and I’m getting there my way.”

In addition to the visual arts and mathematics departments, the Department of Theater and Dance explored the concepts in Rockburne’s work. Students in Assistant Professor of Dance Charlotte Griffin’s Making Dances course analyzed Rockburne’s paintings and responded to them through dance. 

“It was a really cool experience because everything that we normally do is so focused on the physical,” said Lily Bailey ’18. “It was cool to take something that was two dimensional and not bodily and then turn it into [dance].”

Traveling in Maine with close friends last summer inspired Rockburne’s recent drawing, “The Mathematical Edges of Maine.”

“We drove everywhere in western Maine and it was so beautiful,” said Rockburne. “I was looking at the edges of trees, the edges of sky and the edges of small mountains. I began to work in the hotel room and it just came out.”

Rockburne’s exhibition, featuring works from the 1970s through 2014, will remain on display at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art through Sunday.