ISC Murals Captivate the Eastern Community

If you need a reminder that “science is art and art is science,” take a gander at the newly installed mosaic murals inside the Interdisciplinary Science Center.

A trip through the main doors of the ISC will find two stunning abstract murals, titled Expanding and Collapsing. The 12-foot-tall by 16-foot-wide lobby mural is pieced together with an estimated 28,800 hand-glazed ceramic and glass cut tiles. A second mural, smaller yet equally intricate, is located upstairs. When viewed together, the inverted images and color pallets flow into a diverse continuum of life. 

With riverlike veins and prismatic colors that vary depending upon the time of day, and how much sun filters into the ISC atrium, the artwork invites “science brains” to interpret its message.

Two mural installers put in a full week of work to make sure every tiny tile was properly aligned.

“Now that the mural is more complete, I see the cross-section of a cell – and it’s beautiful,” says Jennifer Perez, a 38-year-old Master in Biology student from Valencia California. Her peer, Logan Becker, a 20-year-old from Kent, Washington, in his senior year of environmental sciences and biology, is reminded of a galaxy, a geode or maybe even a “bunch of cells grouped together.”

So, what are the murals really about? Any and all of the above, says artist Dixie Friend Gay, who was on-site at Eastern in early March to oversee the installation of her inspired work. Friend Gay, a longtime science buff, explains that artistic interpretation often varies from one person to the next because our brains process spaces and images differently. Call it a bit of neuroscience. 

Artist Dixie Friend Gay takes a minute to explain some of the nuances of the murals.

To her own eyes, gazing at the upper floor mural is “like looking under a microscope.” Bits of tile incorporated into the green-infused mosaic remind her of mold, fungus and other micro-biological components of our world. While pointing out a tiny, mottled tile she notes, “Doesn’t that look like cells?” 

Creating the diverse colors and textures represented in the 50,000-plus tile pieces for both murals was a science of its own. Glazes were created from custom-mixed chemical compounds enhanced by multiple firing techniques. Those tiles were colored and cut to recreate a life-size full color printout of the design – and the result is amazing.

The mosaic murals, considered public art, were funded by Washington state as part of the overall expenses covered for the entire ISC building. The Art in Public Places program purchases and cares for artworks in state buildings, colleges, universities and schools throughout Washington. 

The artist and project design were chosen by an Eastern committee that included David Bowman, dean of the College of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics; Shawn King, associate vice president of Facilities and Planning; Catherine Girard, associate professor of art history; and Jennifer Lebret, member of the Spokane Tribe of Indians and chairwoman of the Washington State Native American Advisory Council. Together, they worked with Marissa Laubscher, project manager of the Art in Public Places program, to outline priorities for what the art should ideally convey, Bowman said, along with requirements for its durability and maintenance. 

Ultimately, the committee decided, the art should intermingle science and nature, reflect university values, honor the land’s Native American heritage and Prairie Restoration project, and relate to the building’s overall aesthetics.

From there, the committee reviewed proposals from state-approved artists, considering options for sculptures and other works along with where the art would best fit – inside the building or outdoors. Friend Gay, a nationally acclaimed artist, has a portfolio that includes memorable murals she’s created in major airports, science centers and universities throughout the country. When the team saw her proposed design, they were impressed.

“I fell instantly in love with the concept,” Bowman recalls.

The design, inspired by the Houston, Texas-based artist’s passion for horticulture and conservation, also incorporated elements she gleaned from researching the geographical history of Eastern Washington, its topology and even a further exploration of geodes – the crystal packed rock that is reflected in the design of ISC façade and main-floor lighting. 

After two years of planning, Bowman is thrilled with the outcome. When viewed up close, the main floor mural reminds him of a section of geode – with hints of light-catching crystals shining through. The subtle greens of the upper mural remind him of a cut section of a leaf. When viewed from the outside, at night, the art plays well with the overall geode-inspired design of the ISC.

“Having this art here brings so much life to the language of this building,” says Bowman, adding that “everyone will see themselves reflected in it somewhere – and that’s what you want.”

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