Although it’s instantly recognizable to those who’ve ever learned about chemistry, for a lot of people, the periodic table of the elements isn’t something they interact with often — especially not some of the more obscure elements on the list — have you ever encountered Krypton? Californium? Rhodium?
However, a group of artists is now bringing to life the 118 known elements in a creative exhibit that explores the historical, cultural, and yes, scientific stories behind the elements.
Organizers at Waterfall Arts in Belfast invited comic artists, illustrators and designers from across the country to submit their takes on each of the elements, drawn on 6×6 inch pieces of paper. The end result is a vibrantly colorful, wildly diverse interpretation of the periodic table, done by 45 different individuals ranging from high school students to professional artists, that’s now hanging in the arts center’s main gallery, as part of “Created in the Lab: Interpreting Science Through Comics,” up through Nov. 11.
“Early on, when we were first talking about this exhibit and about highlighting comics and illustration in relation to science, we landed on the idea of the periodic table, and how we could illustrate it,” said Deanne Dutton, who with fellow Waterfall Arts staffer Karin Otto curated the exhibit. “It’s a piece of graphic design in and of itself, so it really lends itself to this sort of approach.”
“The whole point of looking into comics and illustration as a way of communicating information is the fact that for a lot of young people, comics or cartoons may be their first sort of window into getting excited about science,” said Otto. “It’s all about accessibility.”
Some of the artists featured came from outside Maine, such as the Boston-based Dante Shepherd, a scientist and creator of the webcomic “Surviving the World,” who turned Thorium (Th) into a riff on the Norse god (and Marvel superhero) Thor and Seaborgium (Sg) into a portrait of Glenn T. Seaborg, the chemist that discovered the element later named for him.
“There’s a lot of dialogue in the imagery that explains where the element was discovered, or how it’s used, or what it looks like, or public opinion about it, or even just what pops into your head when you think about it,” said Otto.
The vast majority of others were from Maine artists — 42 in total — like Belfast’s Douglas Coffin’s illustration of Iron (Fe) showing a woman actually ironing, or Portland’s Shawn Brewer bringing Molybdenum (Mo) to life by showing a fire-breathing dragon trying to melt a Molybdenum shield wielded by a knight — Molybdenum has the sixth highest melting point of any element. Others were created by local students in Waterfall Arts’ popular Teen Art Studio program, run by educator Bridget Matros.
Only a few elements are left blank, after organizers ended up with a few less artists signed up for the project than were needed to illustrate all 118 elements, but they’re willing to add to it still. Interested artists that would like to illustrate what’s left can reach out to Waterfall Arts about adding to the table.
“Created in the Lab: Interpreting Science Through Comics” has more than just the periodic table in it, however. Other artists that utilize comics and/or science as an inspiration have work on display, including Monroe artist Kenny Cole’s entertaining and whimsical installation, combining paintings with rope and basic engineering, and Wade Warman, a teaching artist at the University of Maine, whose electronic sound installation creates a unique sonic combination each time a button is pressed, that will not repeat itself for 4,800 years.
In Waterfall Arts’ Corridor Gallery, another exhibit also inspired by comics and pop culture in general is on display through Nov. 11. Painter John Fawcett , a former professor of art at the University of Connecticut who has works in collections including the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of Art, has a number of his large, precise, striking paintings up at Waterfall, in a rare solo Maine exhibit.
Fawcett, now in his 70s, is better known to Maine audiences as the owner and operator of Fawcett’s Antique Toy & Art Museum on Route 1 in Waldoboro, one of Maine’s great hidden gems. Every corner of the museum is filled with countless examples of 20th century American pop cultural ephemera — mostly toys, but also clothing, furniture, games, equipment and other things produced in mass quantities throughout the 20th century. There’s notable examples of Fawcett’s paintings on display as well.
“We so wanted to be able to feature John’s work here, and knowing that we had this science and comics exhibit coming up we knew that his work would complement that really well,” said Otto. “John isn’t a comic artist at all, however. He’s really an experimenter. He’s a colorist. He loves the quality and skill that goes into creating the characters and images, but he goes well beyond that.”
From the Lone Ranger and Dick Tracy to Bugs Bunny and Little Orphan Annie, those characters and imagery from the middle of the 20th century seem to form a pantheon that Fawcett, now in his 70s, has looked to for inspiration for most of his career. The paintings on display at Waterfall Arts depict many of those characters — albeit in highly stylized, sometimes distorted forms, such as a diptych featuring a cartoon paint can being painted by a neon-colored Mickey Mouse, or Popeye and Olive Oyl, repeated throughout a psychedelic scene.
“I don’t think people here know what a treasure we have with John as an artist, and with the museum, and it’s all right here in Maine,” said Otto.
“Created in the Lab: Interpreting Science Through Comics” and works by painter John Fawcett are on display at Waterfall Arts, located at 256 High St. in Belfast, through Nov. 11. A panel discussion on art and science featuring a number of artists in the exhibit is set for 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 19. The galleries are open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and during evening and weekend events; visit waterfallarts.org for a full schedule, or call 338-2222 to arrange to visit during off hours.