Washington People: Patricia Olynyk

Investigating art and science

Patricia Olynyk (right), director of the Graduate School of Art in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, and master’s candidate Marie Bannerot McInerney discuss Olynyk’s Isomorphic Extension I & II, in Olynyk’s Maplewood studio. (Credit: Joe Angeles)..


The word refers to a condition in which the shape of the skull is markedly long and narrow. At the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, one of the country’s oldest medical teaching collections, the word is tattooed onto a 19th-century exemplar, neat cursive script fading into aged bone.

“One goes to the museum presumably to find answers,” says Patricia Olynyk, director of the Graduate School of Art in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts. “But none of the questions I have about any of the people whose heads reside in these collections can possibly be answered by looking at the archive.

“The objects generate far more questions than answers,” she says. “Therein lies the irony.”

Over the past several years, Olynyk, the Florence and Frank Bush Professor of Art, has developed a series of lightbox photographs that both detail and interrogate the Mutter exhibits. Collectively titled The Archive, they include a handful of skulls as well as antique medical instruments, prosthetic devices, flap anatomies (a kind of anatomical pop-up book) and other objects.

Softly backlit and reproduced larger than life, The Archive feels both clinical and uncanny, as if one were standing before the exhibits themselves — though Olynyk clearly locates the work in the realm of the aesthetic, rather than the strictly documentary. Prosthetic hands fan outward, implying sequential time. Prosthetic legs seem poised to kick. Yellowed skulls, printed on metallic paper, shine as if gold-leafed.

“What makes these collections quintessentially contemporary is that the conditions that put them in the museum, our culture’s preoccupation with difference, remain alive and well today,” Olynyk says.

“There was a time in history when there was little discerning between the person, the ‘monstrous’ and the medical anomaly,” she says. Indeed, such conflations were at the heart of physiognomy, the now-discredited “science” of deducing character traits from outward appearances.

“Yet we are still preoccupied with difference.”

A magical place

Born in Western Canada, Olynyk was raised in Calgary, within sight of the Rocky Mountains. The landscape was majestic but stern. Long winters instilled respect for the elements and a recognition of vulnerability.

“It’s a kind of magical place,” she says, “but you also had the feeling, when in the mountains, that if you took a wrong turn, you might disappear.”

Olynyk drew constantly as a child, and on anything. “Walls, dolls, bodies — you name it.” Her mother, Lily, once phoned a radio show for advice about removing ballpoint ink from her daughter’s skin. By age 9, Olynyk was taking private art lessons, though she also credits her father, Mike, an engineer, with imparting a “proclivity for exactitude.”

After completing her undergraduate studies in visual art, Olynyk spent three years as a preparator at Calgary’s Glenbow Museum, working with historical displays and contemporary artists such as Magdalena Abakanowicz and Judy Chicago.

While in graduate school at the California College of the Arts, she landed an internship at Oakland’s venerable Magnolia Press, specializing in handmade paper and photographic processes.

That expertise helped secure both a Monbusho Scholarship and a Tokyu Foundation Research Scholarship, allowing her to study Japanese culture at the Osaka National University of Foreign Studies and Japanese contemporary art at Kyoto Seika University.

In Kyoto, Olynyk developed a serious interest in Kendo, a martial art descended from traditional Japanese swordsmanship.

“The training bridges meditation and extreme physical combat,” she says. “It’s amazingly rigorous, but that balance really captured my interest.”

Four years later, with her student visa nearing expiration, Olynyk was a second-degree black belt. One teacher — a champion Kendoist who drilled the Imperial police force — offered to formally adopt her so that she might stay in Japan.

“It was an extraordinary gesture, like none other that I’ve encountered,” Olynyk says, rather wistfully. But long hours in the dojo had been bought at the expense of studio time.

“I realized I had to make a choice.”

Sensing Terrains

Returning to the Bay Area, Olynyk became production manager for feminist performance artist Suzanne Lacy, then strung together a series of part-time teaching appointments. Her own work employed photolithography to layer detailed biological and architectural drawings onto delicate, handmade Japanese papers, which she then laminated onto architectural salvage.

“I was interested in what made the scientific image art,” she says.

Then, in 1999, Olynyk took a tenure-track position at the University of Michigan. As the university prepared to launch a new center for theoretical physics, Olynyk connected with Dante Amidei, a particle physicist who arranged for her to visit Illinois’ famed Fermilab.

Inspired, Olynyk commenced her own investigations into the nature of matter. The result was Particle Paradise, or Lilith Looking for a Particle of Another Charge, a pair of large architectural columns combining images of subatomic particles, reproduced from Fermilab films, with Albrecht Durer’s engraving of Adam and Eve.

That image, not coincidentally, was itself a tribute to Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, Leon Battista Alberti’s influential treatise on art and science. Adam is based on Alberti’s likeness; Eve is Durer in disguise.

“In the same commemorative spirit, I used Durer’s Eve — really Durer himself — to celebrate Lilith,” she says. “The pillar was retrofitted so that the center part spins. On one side, you see Lilith in her visceral form; on the other side, you see her in particle form.”

Next, Olynyk began juxtaposing photographs of gardens from the Kansai Region of Japan, which are designed to “tickle the senses,” with scanning electron micrographs of sensory organs from mice, insects and other creatures. She soon was invited to develop the series into an exhibition for the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in Washington, D.C. — a rare honor for any artist.

Three years in the making, Sensing Terrains opened at the NAS in 2006. The installation consisted of 10 tall, narrow prints leading to the rotunda and 16 prints in the rotunda itself. Accompanying the images was a low, humming soundscape, developed with Jukka Nurmela, a Finnish sound engineer, and studio assistant Kathryn Stine.

“I was interested in the phenomenological response,” Olynyk says. “What happens to our sense of ourselves when we’re confronted with a fly eye that’s four feet wide? There’s a visceral response but there’s also a cerebral response.

“The mind struggles to ascertain what it’s looking at.”

A distinct territory

Olynyk arrived at the Sam Fox School in 2007. It was a time of transition, as the Graduate School of Art was moving away from media-specific “silos” to a more interdisciplinary master of visual arts.

“Patricia is an extraordinarily sophisticated and elegant artist whose work embodies the idea and the concrete possibilities of collaboration,” says Carmon Colangelo, dean of the Sam Fox School and the E. Desmond Lee Professor for Collaboration in the Arts, who helped recruit Olynyk.

“Her prints, photographs and installations visualize concepts about the intersection of art and science,” Colangelo says. “At the same time, as a teacher and administrator, she fosters both the informal culture and the organizational structures required to bring people together.”

To improve connections between the graduate school and the wider WUSTL community, Olynyk recently launched the Creative Research Institute Fellows, a pilot program in which visiting artists and guest faculty share a large, open studio with current master’s candidates.

“We want students to engage the world of ideas,” she says. “Each fellow represents a conceptual territory in which students have expressed interest, and is available for informal feedback.”

The idea is to pitch “conceptual and/or thematic umbrellas, not media umbrellas.”

As if demonstrating the point, Olynyk’s most recent project is Dark Skies, a sprawling architectural installation opening Feb. 22 at UCLA’s Art|Sci Center. Created in collaboration with Sung Ho Kim of Axi:Ome and associate professor of architecture at WUSTL, and alumnus Chris Ottinger (MFA ’11), the piece combines projection, recorded sound and CNC-routed tiles inspired loosely by the concept of biomimicry.

“With this piece, I function as a kind of production designer,” Olynyk says.The title is an astronomical metaphor, referring to remote places free of hazy city light, but also suggests sailing into dangerous or difficult territory.

“I like the implication of perception that extends deep into time and space, resulting in a kind of clarity of vision and with this, deep insight. The extended view offers the promise of new knowledge.

“The curatorial object carries with it important aesthetic characteristics and conceptual underpinnings,” she says, “but what really interests me is thinking about what the object does. What conversations emerge when you look at it? What discourses attach?

“There’s creativity in engineering, in math, in the planetary sciences,” she says, “but the experience of art is unique and distinct from other kinds of experiences.

“Art-making is its own distinct territory and knowledge base.”

Fast facts about Patricia Olynyk

Education: 1983, diploma of visual art, Alberta College of Art and Design, Calgary; 1988, master of fine arts degree with distinction, California College of the Arts, Oakland; 1990, diploma, Osaka National University of Foreign Studies; 1990-93, research scholar, Department of Art, Kyoto Seika University
Selected scholarships and fellowships:
2005-06, Wood Fellowship, Francis C. Wood Institute for the History of Medicine, The College of Physicians of Philadelphia; 2001, Helmut S. Stern Faculty Fellowship, Institute for the Humanities, University of Michigan; 1991-93, Tokyu Foundation Scholarship, from the Tokyu Foundation, Tokyo; 1989-91, Monbusho Scholarship, from the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture, Tokyo
Selected professional memberships and associations:
Art and Science Collaborations Inc., College Art Association, Ecoartnetwork, Inter Society for the Electronic Arts, Leonardo Education Forum and Society for Literature, Science and the Arts