Looking for the intersection of science, math and art? Rockville Town Center, where the art collective known as Really Large Numbers (RLN) has opened its newest installation, “Birth of a Star,” to the public.
“Our name originally came from the idea of the infinite,” explained Julia Oldham, who has collaborated with fellow RLN artist Chad Stayrook since 2011. “At the time we first started thinking about collaborating, we were both working on projects that were about chasing after something impossible.”
The daughter of a physicist, Oldham grew up in Ijamsville “with a lot of math and science around me.” She’s not a formally trained scientist — she has a bachelor’s degree in art history from St. Mary’s College of Maryland and a master of fine arts from the University of Chicago — but Oldham’s work reflects her scientific curiosity and passion for knowing the unknowable. “I always loved my science classes the most,” she said. “And in college, I thought that I might be a scientific illustrator.”
Instead, Oldham became an interdisciplinary storyteller, using drawings, paintings and film to express her ideas about animals, nature, the planet and science. Working on a collaborative show called “Science Fair,” in Queens, New York, in 2010, she met Stayrook; all the artists were showing work that was connected to scientific themes.
Stayrook, an Ohio native who now lives in Brooklyn, earned a bachelor of fine arts degree in sculpture from Ohio University before heading west for a master of fine arts in new genres from the San Francisco Art Institute.
“I wanted to be immersed in a contemporary art environment,” he said. “Both in an all-art school and a city that had a pretty good art scene.” After graduation, he moved to New York to become an arts administrator and gallery director at Sarah Lawrence College. As far as math and science goes, the RLN artist said, “I don’t have any training or family-related stuff; it’s an interest of mine — not that I really understand science as a trained scientist; the methods and ideas kind of fascinate me.”
That fascination is at the heart of “Birth of a Star,” which the pair installed at the Gibbs Street Gallery in Rockville Town Center. The bright, colorful installation of mixed media means that residents and visitors will be seeing stars this spring — literally —a s they pass the gallery, located on the ground floor of the 25,000-square-foot space that’s home to the arts nonprofit known as VisArts.
Founded in 1987 to provide space to local artists and art exhibits to the community, VisArts offers classes for artists of all ages, abilities and experience levels as well as summer camps for children and rental space for private occasions. VisArts also manages the Rockville Arts Festival, a two-day celebration featuring vendors and exhibits coming this year in early May.
“Birth of a Star” closes May 19, so it will be up through the festival. And Oldham and Stayrook will be on hand for an artists’ talk at the exhibit’s Opening Reception on Friday, March 29. They’ll answer questions together, because that’s the VLN way.
“It’s not our separate work brought together into the same space,” explained Oldham. “It’s really full collaboration: the two of us and the melding of our practices. We are conceptualizing entire projects totally together and bringing our skills together to make the pieces.”
In this exhibit, the “pieces” add up to what’s easily recognizable as the life cycle of a star. “What we wanted to do was visualize these moments over what is an unimaginably long time,” said Oldham. “To create a strong visual sculpture with a video component — I work mostly in video and animation. Chad is a builder of objects and also works in video.”
Taken together, the mix of media brings the celestial life cycle — from protostar to red giant to supernova to black hole — down to earth in a new way. By bringing together computer animation and simple, elemental materials, “Birth of a Star” combines the whimsical appeal of a science project with the sophistication of a professional modern art exhibit, without relying on tired “sci-fi” tropes.
“I wanted these to feel, not slick and tech-y, but like we hammered them out,” explained Oldham, gesturing to the sculptures that represent each stage of the star. “What we try to do is not just use the aesthetic of science, but instead use the ideas of science and our own aesthetics, our own interest in materials, to really explore those ideas.”
She said there’s a sense of playfulness in the work, and a lot of humor, too. “As an artist, I’m really invested in accessibility,’ she said. “I want to make things that are fun to look at, that inspire curiosity and that don’t make anyone feel like, ‘I don’t get it.’
“Whether it’s the strange-ness of material, or the fun-ness of material; or color or movement or the way you move around the exhibit, I like the work to have a lot of hooks in it.”
And if they can hook visitors on a new way to look at science and art, Really Large Numbers figure, so much the better.
Really Large Numbers Laboratory’s runs through May 19 at VisArts Center’s Gibbs Street Gallery, 155 Gibbs St., Rockville. Gallery hours are noon to 4 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, and noon to 8 p.m. Friday. An Opening Reception and Artist Talk will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. Friday, March 29. Admission is free. Call 301-315-8200 or visit www.visartscenter.org/event/really-large-numbers