Art + Math = Identity Crisis

One of my favorite* pieces in the new exhibition at my workplace is a large fan made of combs on the floor by Sonya Clark. It’s beautiful, for one thing. It has a lot of very striking resonances, and I find new things to like about it each time. Plus, it’s placed next to a giant tapestry made of hair, and who doesn’t love clever juxtapositions?

But now, I have a problem. This piece has a feature that I didn’t notice until someone brought it to my attention. And now that I see it, I don’t know what to do.

At the reception, someone pulled me aside. He was very excited. He said, “That piece on the floor, how many combs are in it?” I said I didn’t know. He suggested we have a contest, like a guess the number of jelly beans in the jar type thing, and I said the idea had come up before.

Then, he said this: “You know, it’s a beautiful example of a binary tree.”

I hate math. When I had to write a press release template, I made it about my hatred of math. I have a who, what, where, why and how much for my math hatred, and an “About Math” section (About Math: I hate it). Got it?

I can pretty much instantly remember the year LIFE magazine was founded (and what was on the cover, and who took the photograph), but math terms tend to be buried deep, probably under the pile of embarrassing moments I acquired during middle school, tucked away in some neglected corner of my brain that I’d rather not visit again. In any case, they’re very hard to find, if they’re even there at all.

The man must have sensed that binary trees are not exactly in my memory’s immediate recall.

He sighed, and I got the feeling that maybe he had brought this up with someone else earlier, with similar results. Maybe he’s a math teacher. “Binary trees. You know, each branch doubles. See? it starts with one comb, then it doubles each branch. two combs, four combs…”

“Eight combs! sixteen combs!” I shrieked like a three-year-old who just learned to spell her name. “Er..I hadn’t noticed it before. How interesting.”

He smiled. “Oh, it’s quite obvious.”

The thing is, seeing the binary tree in the piece makes it even more beautiful. It adds something (get it?). The man was right to be excited. There’s a precision and pattern to Sonya Clark’s piece, and he knew exactly why. But it’s math. So I should hate it, right?

I don’t know. Even the term “Binary tree” is beautiful. Maybe there’s something to the beauty of mathematical precision.


*I have about 15 other favorite pieces in this show.



  1. randyhate

    the lack of a photo of this piece = very frustrating.
    please post one soon.

  2. Abby

    On second thought: Looks like my press images are finally on our website. Victory!

  3. randyhate

    oh my… that is amazing.

  4. Meghan Maguire Dahn

    Yes, boo, it is a binary tree.

    But it's all fine as long as you don't try to calculate the number of combs, isn't it?

    I've always thought it was a bit cruel that – because of whatever alignment or affinity – artists tend to be better at math than art historians.

    Well, the wonder has to come from somewhere, right?

  5. Abby

    Matthew immediately tried to calculate how many combs were in the piece.

  6. Helder

    Lovely piece! I remember seeing it on the floor and being very nervous about stepping on it. Your explanation (or I should say, the gentleman who pointed it out) really makes it all that more superb. Just recommended it to someone.

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