Here's what happens when one artist ponders dark matter and the unknowable with an astrophysicist

Mary Simon-Casati, 'Spiral'

Mary Simon-Casati, 'Spiral'

Four years ago, Mary Simon-Casati was deeply contemplating energy. This was partly fueled by her mother's death a few years earlier. “I started thinking about, what happens when the body completely goes away and where does that energy go?” she says.

Intrigued, the artist began reading pieces for laypeople about energy and particle physics. She gobbled up books like The Accidental Universe by Alan Lightman and other works by physicists written for non-scientists.

Looking for more, a few years later Simon-Casati went to the University of Minnesota's physics department website and perused the staff roster. She picked one of person, Dr. Liliya Williams, out of the blue. “I just thought she looked friendly and approachable,” Simon-Casati recalls.

She emailed Williams, who studies dark matter, and asked if she’d want to have a conversation with an artist. “She said, ‘Yeah,’” Simon-Casati says. “I was completely shocked.”

The two met regularly to chat about ways that art and physics intersect. “We connect in a lot of different places,” Simon-Casati says, “Like, what does all this mean? And there's the creativity that goes into the things they do and the things that I do. It’s been very interesting to explore that part.”

While artists tend to desire ambiguity, scientists are looking for clarity. And yet both are thinking about the unknown. “I’m kind of in a place where I’m letting myself explore that unknown,” says Simon-Casati. For example, in astrophysics, particles, like much of the things that physicists study, are unseeable. In order to create artwork about the particles, she tries to clear herself and get her self out of the way.

Mary Simon-Casati

Mary Simon-Casati

She begins with very abstract work that she dubbs “instant paintings.” They're created in about 30 seconds. “I’m allowing the work to speak to me on a different level,” she says. “I’m trying to make my work mimic what I feel is happening on this elemental particle world. Things have certain spins and they crash into each other… Some of these particles have minute lives -- seconds, milliseconds of life -- then it decays into something else.”

After the initial instant painting, Simon-Casati then spends several months processing and developing the work. “[I now have] such a deep respect for how much we don’t know,” she says.

The resulting works will be exhibited in a show, “Smashing the Invisible,” opening this Saturday. Among the pieces are a human rib cage that has been deconstructed to symbolize what happens when we die, and a spiral image that speaks to the universe’s constant motion. Dark Matter is based on an actual research map that Williams uses in her work. Each piece in the show, 10 in all, include a quote from an artist or a scientist.

Simon-Casati says she hopes people come away from the exhibition with a better appreciation of the world’s complexity, enormity, and fragility. “It’s so much more than we could ever imagine,” she says. “What I’m trying to do is use abstraction to bring people viscerally closer to the problem of knowing what we don't know, and to contemplate nothingness, which is everything.”


“Smashing the Invisible”
Opening reception 5 to 9 p.m. Saturday, January 20
Regis Center for Art, Quarter Gallery
There will be an artist talk the following Saturday, January 27, at 1 p.m. with Mary Simon-Casati and Dr. Liliya Williams.
 There will be an all-women panel discussion on seeing the invisible from four different points of view -- art, history, physics, and philosophy -- Saturday, February
3, at 1 p.m.