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From Mathematics to Art: an interview with Tuomas Tuomiranta

Mathematicians know that mathematics is beautiful, but they have hard time explaining to others why is it so. In fact, most of the time they give up on this task. My friend Tuomas Tuomiranta hasn’t. I met Tuomas at the University of Helsinki when we both studied mathematics around 10 years ago. Several years later it came to me as a surprise to find out that he became a visual artist! In 2010 Tuomas had created simulations of liquid dynamics based on the Navier-Stoke’s and turned them into artistic animations. Another one was based on the theory of conformal mappings in the complex plane – a common topic at the University of Helsinki. Some links:

Tuomas Tuomiranta was born in Helsinki in 1985 and spent his youth in Punkaharju Eastern Finland. He studied in Savonlinna Senior Secondary School of Art and Music (Savonlinnan Taidelukio). After that Tuomas moved to Helsinki to study mathematics at the University of Helsinki. After finishing his Master’s degree he went to study art in different schools, e.g. painting in Free Art School and writing in Critical Academy. Despite that he has continued studying mathematics in his free time. Tuomas has programmed and developed computer graphics that utilize mathematics to create visual art since 2010. He sees it as his profession. An exhibition featuring his new artwork will take place this fall in Helsinki at the Cable Factory (Kaapelitehdas).

In this interview we explore what it was like to switch from mathematics to art, what is common between them and what are the differences. The topic of switching disciplines is very close to my heart as I am myself moving from mathematics to cognitive science through artificial intelligence and back… Welcome Tuomas Tuomiranta!

Tuomas (yellow pants) and I (red scarf) in Helsinki

Vadim (V): Can you briefly explain what was your master thesis in mathematics about?

Tuomas (T): My master thesis was about algebraic topology and differential geometry. I presented a proof of the de Rham’s theorem for smooth manifolds which says that the cohomology groups for differential forms and for singular complexes are the same. The proof used sheaves as a tool.

In little more popular language I studied certain geometrical objects (manifolds) and two kind of structures (continuous and smooth) on them. I proved that these two give same certain invariants (cohomology groups).

V: Did you do art before finnishing your masters? If so, what kind of art?

T: Visual arts have been very familiar to me from my childhood because both of my parents are artists, father a painter and mother a textile artist. In my childhood home aesthetics and colours were truly important.

As I studied in Savonlinnan Taidelukio (senior secondary school), I took a lot of art courses: painting, graphic art, ceramics, art history. As a final work I made a chess board with ebony and tin. I used self carved gypsum molds to cast tin. Black pieces were coated with copper using electrolysis and copper sulphate.

V: Did you consider an artistic career before you graduated in math?

T: Not really. My passion was studying math and I used most of my time doing it. Fine art was very interesting field but my preference was to became a professional mathematician.

V: Why did you decide to switch from math to art?

T: I tried to start doctoral studies in mathematics but art became more and more important. My field of interest in mathematics was aritmetic geometry that almost nobody studies in Finland, and I was not ready to move abroad. In fact I got quite uneasy about the situation and was led in strong existential concerns. I painted strange aquarelles that put me even deeper in these feelings. Still, somehow I was forced to continue.

When I now look back to those days, I understand that art gave me a way to handle those difficult feelings like fear, loneliness, horror, sadness, hate and to feel more something positive like peace, fulfillment, freedom. Mathematics can rouse deep feelings but it is mainly self closed to its abstract stuctures. In art you can communicate with much broader community than in mathematics, where the group that understand your work can be small group of experts. I like programming computer graphics because I can combine my different skills that way.

V: How did you manage the transition from being an expert (in math) into being an newbie (in art)? Was it difficult?

T: It was not so difficult or irritating. I saw it as a challenge. Visual art has long been a very close hobby for me; the process was a slow evolution from a mathematician to a visual artist. So I have had time to adapt. I feel that the change gave me fresh air for new ideas. Feeling like an expert can be a mental cage. I think it is best to do something you really want and not to think so much how good you are in it. I see unnecessary separation as a major obstacle for creativity in our society. Of course every field has some basic skills you have to master to be able to create something new.

In mathematics you are used to think that things are either correct or wrong. Art is much more subjective and this is good and bad thing. On the other hand, both mathematics and art have one connecting ultimate valuation criterion, the beauty. Studying mathematics gives you good sense of structural coherence and this can be used in art to clarify your ideas and to see what is essential. My thinking style is very geometric and this has helped me to move into visual art.

V: Do you regret not switching to art earlier?

T: I switched when I felt like it, so I don’t regret.

V: Your art is tightly connected to mathematics, because you work a lot with simulations and visualisations of mathematics. Which one is primary for you? Mathematics or art?

T: Yes, I work much with simulations and visualisations of mathematical concepts. I have used for example fluid and wave simulations. I have developed own 3D-rendering algorithms which use quite intensive vector calculations. In general programming computer graphics needs ability to apply mathematical consepts and technics creatively.

At this point I’m primary interested in art but I read a lot of mathematics to be used in new art projects (and also for pleasure). I read number theory, algebraic geometry, commutative and homological algebra, theory of Riemann surfaces etc. I’m interested to use this kind of stuff in visual art. I want to do something new and so I’m less interested about the consepts that are much used like fractals, polyhedra, tilings etc.

V: Do you use mathematics for art or do you use art for the visualisation of math? What is the balance?

T: Sometimes I have a mathematical idea or structure in my mind, and I use it to make an artwork (or part of it). Sometimes I work to opposite direction and consider how to technically realize some cool visual idea. My working is often dialogue of visual and mathematical ideas, but artistic depth is all that matters in the end, not technical machinery making it possible to realize these things. Mathematical art and computer graphics are often thought to be inferior to “real” visual arts like painting. This is irritating and silly because the value of art is not about the medium.

V: Have you considered using your visualisations for mathematics education?

T: I’m happy if the viewers of my art get interested and fascinated about the mathematical background. I want to show that mathematics can be useful in many different fields and I’m open for new ways to utilize my work.

V: Who are the inspiring artists and scientists to you? Whom would you consider your mentors if any?

T: From living mathematician I admire Grigori Perelman who solved the Poincaré conjecture, and from the dead Alexander Grothendieck, a creator of modern algebraic geometry (scheme theory). For me these two mathematicians are good examples of intellectually autonomous attitude.

My favourite classical art-style is abstract expressionism and more generally expressionism. My favourite painters include Mark Rothko, Gerhard Richter, Francis Bacon, Edward Munch, Giorgio de Chirico.

Still, I don’t have a mentor. I think that in the end an artist or a thinker must form own language and own way of thinking. Of course knowing your background is essential but original ideas are the most important.

V: Where does your motivation for art come from?

T: When studying mathematics I have sometimes a mystical and even little frightening feeling that I’m on the shore of arcane and hidden beauty. I think that mathematics is the only field that can be seen as truly metaphysical. These considerations are a great motivation for my working. Often I try to describe something that is universal. However, sometimes my working is much more emotion driven, sometimes with angst or sometimes with joy, and motivation is replaced with must. In fact it is interesting to combine coherent and logical mathematical world with subjective and irrational world of dream, myth and uncouncious.

V: Do you have periods of low motivation? What do you do then?

T: I think that it is common for many people working on creative fields to worry is your work interesting or important for others. My solution is to do things primary for my own joy and wisdom. Of course I’m happy about possible collaboration and support from others. When my working is stuck to something like lack of inspiration it’s better to start doing something else like writing or reading serious mathematics. Often I go for a walk.

V: In periods of work, how is your day organised?

T: First I do things that are necessary and after that I use my time quite freely to most interesting things like composing, developing and programming new artworks.

V: Do you consider discipline important, or are you motivation driven?

T: Mostly i have strong inspiration for working. Discipline and motivation follow from that.

V: What is most important: discipline, motivation or passion?

T: Passion is the most important and the others follow from that. My ability to do something good only with “hard work” is quite low and It’s hard to develop some fine idea only with interest to do it. Passion gives good ideas. Motivation and discipline are needed to make them reality.

V: Do you take days off work? Does that help (in work)?

T: It’s hard for me to stop thinking my work but sometimes I intentionally try to have some free time with friends or with some sport like swimming, or sometimes just walking.

V: Do you have morning routines?

T: Coffee.

V: Do you ever isolate yourself from social life for longer periods of time in order to work?

T: I haven’t tried. I like to work in some social atmosphere like cafe and listen music while working. It suits for me that there is something happening around when I’m working.

V: Art and mathematics are commonly thought to be opposite of each other. What is your opinion? What is common between art and math and what is different?

T: As I said earlier, I think that both art and mathematics have beauty as a common valuation criterion but in art the valuation is more subjective.

For me both mathematics and art are voyages to unknown worlds, art to inner world of human mind and mathematics to inner world of universe.

V: Do you ever spend time on thinking about the “big picture”? Do you have long term goals as an artist?

T: It is of course very important to think the direction where you are going. For me it’s now to explore the different possibilities of mathematics and computer graphics programming in visual arts. My goal is to be able to have my living from this one day.

V: If you met yourself when you were 20 years old, what advice would you give to him?

T: Be brave to try different interesting fields of art and science. Only that way, you can find the combination that suits you the best.

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