A card-carrying chemist couldn’t easily get away with openly revering the periodic table as though it were a sacred mandala by which the universe could be contemplated and deciphered. Rebecca Kamen, a sculptor living in a former 19th-century post office/general store in the Washington, D.C., suburb of McLean, Va., can’t help but embrace the table that way. She thinks everyone should. Kamen says, with a fundamentalist’s certainty in an earthy Pennsylvania accent, “Everything is encoded in the periodic table.”
Truth be told.
This month, her epic homage to the periodic table, titled “Divining Nature: An Elemental Garden,” opened to the public at the Greater Reston Arts Center (GRACE), a few miles from her studio. “I would like people to have a new respect and understanding of the periodic table,” Kamen told me during a visit to her studio. “I want people to come away feeling a little more in awe of the world around them.”
Every detail of the installation reflects insights, experiences, and discoveries that have been part of Kamen’s own two-year journey of research and exploration into the periodic table. It’s an icon of science from her high school days that became an object of obsession for her after returning from a long flight in 2007. “I was doing a workshop in Santiago, Chile, and I walked in the front door and got this image of the periodic table,” she recalls. “I spent the whole summer trying to decode what the message was.”
Since then, she visited India and Bhutan in search of other cultures’ depictions of the elements. She scoured the alchemy book collection at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia. She immersed herself in the myriad ways the periodic table has been portrayed by scientists, philosophers, and artists. In that endeavor, she was magnetically drawn to a set of “Atom Flowers” in which the s, p, d, and f orbitals of the elements are drawn out as nested petals in renditions that look like flowers.
“A lot of my work has dealt with gardens,” Kamen says, “so I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be incredible to create a garden of the elements that people could walk through?’ ” Her works are in collections as disparate as those of the Institute of Defense Analysis, in Alexandria, Va., and a synagogue in Boca Raton, Fla. “Gardens are places of meditation and of transformation,” Kamen says, the latter being a defining phenomenon of chemistry.
As a sculptor, Kamen wanted to add a third dimension to the flat atom flowers—which she did, after plenty of experimentation, using Mylar cutouts of the orbital petals that she suspended along fiberglass rods, yielding pagoda-like forms.
Arranged in a grid in her studio last month, the milky-white constructions scattered light like miniature cumulonimbus clouds. In the GRACE installation, the elements follow what Kamen calls a “sacred geometry.” Worked out in collaboration with Maryland-based architect Alick Dearie, the lightest elements attach vinelike to a central pillar in GRACE’s octagonal gallery and then spiral down to the gallery floor and outward—in groupings that correspond to the periodic table’s orbital-dictated arrangements—along a Fibonacci spiral, which for centuries has been associated with the most beautiful of nature’s proportions.
Adding to the gravity of Kamen’s message is a soundscape by Portland, Ore.-based composer Susan Alexjander. Emerging like sonic meteors are compositions that Alexjander derived by mapping the frequencies of a magnetic-field-induced oscillation of atomic nuclei (Larmor frequencies) to audible frequencies played through a synthesizer.
Kamen’s elemental garden “focuses on the liminal space where the scientific and artistic imagination meet,” chemist and philosopher of chemistry Tami I. Spector of the University of San Francisco says. “Rather than illustrate or replicate scientific icons, Kamen interprets and transforms them.”
The installation is a natural fit for GRACE, curator Joanne Bauer says. “We like looking at overlaps of how artists and scientists approach the world,” she says. “We all start out in that questioning mode, in that ‘what if’ way of thinking.”
It takes a confluence of circumstances and influences to synthesize a cognitive style like Kamen’s. Key among them, suggests Kamen, a professor of art at Northen Virginia Community College since 1978, was her early start in working with materials and building things. “Dad taught me how to use a hammer when I was four,” she says. He worked in the men’s clothing business but had an insatiable curiosity about the world that he instilled in his daughter. The two made runs to the nearby Edmund Scientific to, in Kamen’s words, “buy all kinds of scientific magic.” Growing up in the 1950s was also a gift, she says. “It was a time of possibilities.”
Kamen’s artistic sensibility emerges from many mental modes, not just rational ones. She discerns interconnections in her life and the world by way of intuition, metaphoric and analogic thinking, “messages” from dreams, and other mental catalysts. She revels in the connections her mind offers and shares them with ebullience.
“How many people get to build the universe in their basement?” Kamen beams. “I just want to know.”