From science to sculpture

Visiting artist transforms science into works of art

  • “Tidal Datum” shows the tides over a month in San Francisco Bay. Each curve is a day’s tidal changes.-Photo Provided
  • Each drawer face of “Snow Water Equivalent Cabinet” shows annual snowfall at Ebbetts Pass, Calif. -Photo Provided
  • Segal will use this computer generated sketch of Exit Glacier changes to create a data sculpture. The graph shows the terminus from 1950, bottom, to 2011, top.-Graph Provided

In presenting information in everything from data-filled reports to newspapers, the X-Y graph rules supreme. Flat, in two dimensions, information gets shown on two axes. On one side might be figures like unemployment rates and on the other side the years, so that the change over time appears as a rising and falling line.
Artist Adrien Segal has a better idea: She reinterprets information in three dimensions.
An Old Town Artist in Residence from Oakland, Calif., at Bunnell Street Arts Center through May 16, Segal’s residency is a bit out of the box even for Bunnell. Instead of creating a project while here, she will explore environmental information and develop a conceptual idea to be created later.
In a talk on April 22 at Bunnell, she described her process through some of her projects. In “Tidal Datum,” she made pieces of furniture, four tables fitted end to end that show the tidal changes over a month in San Francisco Bay.
“I don’t have a background in science,” Segal said. “I just love learning about the natural world.”
Segal has a bachelor of fine arts in furniture design from California College of the Arts, San Francisco. She said she makes sculpture that can be interpreted as furniture, some more obviously than others.
She got the idea for “Tidal Datum” from visiting San Francisco’s derelict Sutro Baths, a 1920s era seaside bathhouse where the waters change with the tides.
“That really got me inspired and thinking about the tides and how they work,” Segal said. “It’s hard to understand a pattern or cycle like this if it’s only in the two-dimensional form.”
A tide chart showing the rise and fall of the tides over a day would show a series of curves. Segal took each day’s chart and turned it into a curved line — a piece of bent metal. Those curves then were put in wooden frames, and the frames laid in front of each other, the shapes rising and falling through the frames. Looking down through the sculpture is like looking into a vortex or a tornado.
“You can see how the patterns ebb and flow,” she said.
In another sculpture, “Snow Water Equivalent Cabinet,” she created a three-dimensional sculpture showing the amount of snow water each year at Ebbetts Pass in the Sierra Nevadas, Calif., from 1980-2010. A slice through the sculpture would show the snowfalls through the year, the peak amount of snow and the final snowmelt.
In the sculpture, each year is a block that becomes the face of a cabinet drawer. The three-dimension wooden blocks are then smoothed and rounded, so that the overall piece looks like a mountain range.
“I create a lot of really gross dust,” Segal said.
The cabinet has a twist, though: it’s an actual cabinet that can be used to store things. The volume of each drawer represents to scale the volume of water created that year. “Snow Water Equivalent Cabinet” thus merges two groups of data, snowfall and volume, in a sculpture that is tactile and not just visual.
“Can I touch that? Can I feel that? That’s the response I want,” she said. “I feel like this is a more alternate paradigm, a more compelling way to understand the world.”
For her Homer residency, Segal has been looking at several information sets as possible data sculptures. One shows arctic sea ice changes since 1979.
“I’m going to be turning those potentially into a sculpture that shows volume and area diminishing over time,” she said.
Another piece looks at changes in glaciers. Working with scientist Steve Baird at the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve, she has compiled aerial photographs since 1950 that show changes in the terminus of Exit Glacier near Seward and Grewingk Glacier on the south shore of Kachemak Bay. Segal has done a computer model of the Exit Glacier changes.
If each year was overlaid on clear film as a line, and then the images stacked on each other, in two dimensions that change would look like a series of curved lines. As with the snow water sculpture, Segal has given each year of data some dimension, and then laid those blocks one on top of each other and smoothed them out.
“I think it’s a really compelling form,” she said. “It looks like drapery. Someone said it looks like the bustle of a dress.”
Segal may create such a sculpture for each glacier. In Kachemak Bay, the changing glaciers connect to each other, though.
“They’re a lot of them spreading out like fingers,” she said. “I’m not sure I would want to show them interconnected.”
How that concept translates into an actual sculpture Segal doesn’t know yet. She’ll probably make a mock-up in clay and then figure out what media to use. She’s thinking of doing a proposal for a 1-percent for art project for the new Harbormaster building on the Spit.
Through her residency, Segal holds studio hours 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday at Bunnell. People can visit her and see her sketches and ideas.
“Anyone can poke around and see what I’m doing,” she said.
Michael Armstrong can be reached at

Adrien Seagal
Old Town Artist in Residence
Bunnell Street Arts Center

Studio hours
11 a.m.-5 p.m.
through May 16

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