Dr. Frank Farris, a professor of mathematics at Santa Clara University, is creating mathematical art—and he is doing it with the help of Bowdoin students. Using his original software, “SymmetryWorks!,” which was worked on by Bridget Went ’17 and Son Ngo ’17 this summer, Farris transforms his photographs into vivid wallpapers, illustrating both the principles of visual beauty and symmetry. Through lectures, a workshop and an exhibit, Farris shared his work with the Bowdoin community this past week.

“These started as mathematical diagrams to explain something about geometry,” Farris said. “In the 90s, I realized the method had artistic potential, but it wasn’t until 2011 that I really got the software to put photographs with the pattern-making mathematics.”

Irritated by the narrow definition of a pattern in a geometry textbook, Farris set out to correct it, keeping in mind a pattern’s visual and emotional effect. This idea led to the original code for SymmetryWorks! As Farris explains in his 2015 book, “Creating Symmetry: The Artful Mathematics of Wallpaper Patterns,” there are 17 different wallpaper types which are described as “a pattern that repeats perfectly in two independent directions.” Using these wallpaper types, SymmetryWorks! transforms colors or even photographs into various designs.

Farris has come a long way from his first wallpapers, which he created with Microsoft Excel. His images (both wallpapers and variations of symmetry) are fantastical and kaleidoscope-like, and now hang in the gallery of the Edwards Center for Art and Dance. A few of his designs are printed on fabrics; Farris sells these fabrics on spoonflower.com, an online fabric store. One can hardly tell that each of these patterns comes from photographs of things like flowers or chopped up red peppers. 

“I think I conform to traditional values of [art],” Farris said. “Sometimes I engage in humor, like the [photo of] fish turning into [the wallpaper with a repeating shape of a] fish...I have a little bit of a zany side, but there’s also this quasi-sacred side of meditative and mysterious beauty.”
Farris points to his three works that venture into the three-dimensional realm. Using Adobe Photoshop, Farris was able to impose his original two-dimensional pattern around a three-dimensional shape. In one image, termed a “variation of symmetry,” patterned spheres float over a lake at night with a mountain in the background. This scene was created with the same kind of software and mathematics that the film industry uses for graphics.

“[I tell my students] mathematics is beautiful, mathematics is useful and mathematics is developmental,” Farris said. “Sometimes I will bring in a PowerPoint to say, ‘Well let me tell you a little more [about] what I meant by mathematics is beautiful,’ and then I show them some of this stuff. [Mathematics is] this abstract realm where there’s all this beautiful stuff, but then [these pieces channel] that into the realm where others can see.”

With the help of Went and Ngo, Farris is now able to share this beauty more easily. Invited by Assistant Professor of Computer Science Sean Barker, Went and Ngo worked with Farris this summer, communicating via Skype, to make the software more user-friendly, fast and aesthetically pleasing.

“[Farris is] not a programmer himself, so the software was really raw,” Went said. “Our job over the summer was to make it more useable, especially for artists who may not necessarily understand the mathematical underpinnings.” 

Meeting with Barker about the mathematics of symmetry and using their knowledge of the programming language C++, the two students added functions such as sliders to make the software more usable and to make the interface “guide artists towards more aesthetically pleasing patterns.”

“It’s really cool, this idea that you can create a pattern real time and have complete control over how it turns out,” Went said. “But also there’s this component of unpredictability. You don’t know what you’re going to end up creating.”

The software is open-source, intended for the use of “certain specialist artists” according to Farris, though he plans to one day make an Adobe Photoshop plug-in. Farris hopes this project will extend past just himself and artists. “My hope is this will successfully engage the Bowdoin community and beyond in this kind of joyful playing with patterns,” he said. 

Students have already begun using the software. This week, Farris critiqued students’ designs made with SymmetryWorks! in A. LeRoy Greason Professor of Art Mark Wethli’s 3000-level visual art class, Abstraction. Farris hopes more Bowdoin students will be interested in the project and help take it to its next level, perhaps in relation to harnessing the software’s three-dimensional potential.

“I think some of [my ideas for the software’s expansion] realistically might happen on campus this year,” Farris said. “I think towards the end of the week there will be some meetings about what the Bowdoin community wants to do, what has been the perceived interest, is there energy for people to pick this up.”

“SymmetryWorks!: The Mathematical Art of Frank Farris,” will be displayed in Edwards until September 23.