Turning Math into Art

Written by Sarah Naron

July 15, 2020

Story by Sarah Naron

BULLARD – Ask any student what his or her least favorite subject is to study, and you’re likely to hear mathematics. Even among those who don’t mind it, it’s typically not something thought to be capable of being used in the creation of stunning works of art.

Throughout his career as an artist, Bullard resident Don Bristow has sought to change that. Using mathematical solutions, Bristow creates fractal art and brings beauty where it seems impossible.

Bristow, a former resident of Sacramento, CA, who once worked as a professional photographer, obtained a degree in mathematics from California State University in the 1980s. This, he said, is when he first began experimenting with transforming math into artwork, but progressed little until the early 2000s.

“I was having exhibits of my fine art photography and had really good relationships with some of the Sacramento curators – one, in particular, her name was Joyce,” he said. “So, I made some prints on my own printer and took them to the curators just to pass it by them. I asked them, ‘Is this even artwork?’ Joyce was very interested, and she encouraged me a lot.”

While Bristow admitted he “still hadn’t come very far,” he was reassured by the curators’ response that he “was pursuing something that may have some interest to the art world in the future.”

Upon relocating to Texas in 2007, Bristow began to get more serious about creating fractal art and focused on “upping the bar.

“Software had improved a lot, computers had improved a lot,” he said. “They could do mathematical renderings reasonably fast – from a few hours to maybe a couple of days.”

In 2008, Bristow’s first print of a mathematical rendering – which he ordered from a North Carolina company called Image Wizards – arrived. The creation was printed on aluminum and measured 48 inches by 48 inches.

Bristow recalled being extremely pleased by what he saw upon removing the print from its crate.

“I was amazed,” he said. “I had never seen anything like it before. The aluminum had a high-gloss finish, and the image was there, and it just popped. I was so excited about it.”

While Bristow’s wife shared in his astonishment, he felt it necessary to show his creation to “somebody that wasn’t a relative.

“So, I ran over to a corner house of an elderly, widowed lady, and I said I had something to show her,” he said. “She came over, and she stood in front of the print for about thirty seconds. She spoke nothing. And the, she said, ‘I gotta have me one of them.’ So, I had my first sale.”

This, Bristow said, “was a confirmation that I was going in the right direction.”

When asked to identify the biggest challenge he has faced while creating artwork, Bristow cited the difficulty of finding the necessary amount of time.

“It takes a long time, because I have a high standard,” he explained. “I really want to raise the bar for fractal art. There’s a lot of it out there on the Internet, and 99 percent of it is video. It’s not created to be artwork. It’s not composed properly.”

The process of creating a new piece, Bristow said, involves lengthy amounts of time searching solutions to mathematical equations.

“I may render a lot of them, but then, that’s not the artwork,” he said. “The artwork is when I take two renderings and layer them together and play with transforms between them. That’s when I’m able to control color really well or pattern and composition.”

Much of what Bristow comes across during his research, he said, is discarded before becoming artwork.

“Almost everything gets thrown away,” he said. “But every once in a while, I come across something that’s, ‘Wow, I like what I see here. Composed right, I can work with this.’ And then, I come across another one, and I’ll layer them together and see what happens, and then, maybe I’ll come up with a piece. Most of it’s bad. But every once in a while – wow. There’s something that’s good.”

Some of Bristow’s pieces are inspired by his personal experiences and places to which he has traveled.

“As I’m searching mathematics, if I see something that reminds me of an experience I’ve had, I can play with that and build it into something that’s almost representational,” he said.

An example of this is a piece called The Bellagio, which encompasses two 36×36-inch panels and was inspired by the Bellagio Hotel of Las Vegas.

“As a photographer in Sacramento, I  used to travel to Las Vegas twice a year for a photography convention,” Bristow said. “One of the hotels that amazed me was the Bellagio, because it has the fountains in the front. When I walked inside, there was a kite display in the hallways.”

While the piece appears to simply be an abstract work to most who view it, Bristow – and some others who have visited the Bellagio – sees an accurate representation of the hotel.

“It has the kites. It has the glass towers. It has the water,” he said. “And it’s all mathematics.”

The most rewarding aspect of creating fractal art, Bristow said, has been the reactions of young viewers.

“I had a show at the Arlington Museum of Art, and when I went in to remove the show, one of the volunteers there came up and talked to me about what she witnessed,” he said. “She said there was a young, black child – about eight years old – and she noticed that he was staring at one of my pieces for a long period of time.”

The volunteer approached the child to hear his thoughts about the piece.

“And he said, ‘I want to do this when I grow up,’” Bristow said.

Stories such as this, Bristow said, give him hope that the potential beauty of mathematics “might supersede the fear of mathematics that many children have.

“When they see that it can produce beautiful things, it changes their attitude toward it, and that can help them be successful in studying mathematics,” he said. “That’s one of my hopes, that it does that. I think it has done that – not just for that one child, but I’ve had interactions with other young people as well who have enjoyed my work.”

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