Jamie Molaro turned her thesis into a work of art

Welcome back to STUDIO SPACE, the ROCKETGUT! series where we profile people who work at the intersection of art and science.

This week, we’re talking with Jamie Molaro, a planetary scientist who makes 3D artwork using real data from space missions. She’s the founder of the Art of Planetary Science, an annual space art exhibition at the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.

What first drew us to Jamie was the way she turned her Ph.D. thesis into a work of art using topography data from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. For our second episode of STUDIO SPACE, she describes the inspiration she gets from geology and physics, the robot she uses to cut out her topography layers, and how she’d create art from reusable materials on Mars.

 "Book of Moon" © Jamie Molaro

"Book of Moon" © Jamie Molaro

 "Book of Moon" (detail) © Jamie Molaro

"Book of Moon" (detail) © Jamie Molaro

How did you get started as an artist? 

I have always been into arts and crafts. We did a lot of creative activities when I was a kid. My Mom taught me how to sew, which I enjoyed a lot. We made our own stuffed dolls and dollhouses, quilts, and clothes. My Dad is a carpenter, so we used to make forts and build toy boats to sail down the creek in the neighborhood. We were encouraged to really think creatively about how we can use scrap materials in creative ways to build our costumes and sets, and I think that “let no item go to waste when it can go to crafts” really stuck with me. From there, I carted my sewing machine and button maker off to college with me and just never gave it up.

I didn’t really start making what I would now consider more “serious” art until a few years ago. I started an art show in grad school called The Art of Planetary Science, where we featured artwork inspired by science and the solar system. We also encouraged scientists to create artwork out of their research data in an effort to show a different side of science to public. The event was — and still is — really successful. It provides a way for people to form a meaningful, personal connection to science and math outside of the classroom, and outside the confines of their own inhibitions or assumptions about their inability to understand it. I’d never considered myself an artist before, but I guess with my own event I inspired myself to try. It’s a tradition in my grad department (and many others) to burn a copy of your PhD thesis after you defend— a cathartic act, I guess. But instead of burning it, I decided I wanted to make it into art.

Describe your scientific background. What role does it play in your art? 

I have an undergraduate degree in physics, and I still consider myself a physicist by training. In graduate school I got my PhD in Planetary Science, with an emphasis in geoscience. Planetary Science is, by nature, an extremely interdisciplinary field, and I love this about it. I study the surfaces of rocky and icy bodies, such as the Moon, asteroids, comets, and the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn. In a practical sense, my background plays a direct role in my art, both in that it drives the content or subject that I am inspired to make art about and that I use remote sensing data from robotic spacecrafts to create it. I use both images and topography data to create my artwork. Some pieces incorporate scientific concepts or information rather than data.

It’s a tradition in my grad department (and many others) to burn a copy of your PhD thesis after you defend — a cathartic act, I guess. But instead of burning it, I decided I wanted to make it into art.

What or who has been your biggest inspiration in science?

I don’t really think of myself as studying objects in the solar system; rather, I study processes. My research interests lie primarily in understanding mechanical/physical processes that evolve and shape the surfaces of other worlds. For example, I study the way rocks crack and break down into dust over time as the sun heats and cools them in endless cycles. The stress caused from this thermal cycling causes tiny cracks to propagate through the rocks, cracks that are directed and controlled by the mineral grains that make up the rock and the way the sun moves overhead. The nature of this process influences the size and shape of pebbles, rocks, and boulders on planetary surfaces, and it happens differently depending on where you are in the solar system. Not only can we learn so much about the history (and future) of planetary surfaces from studying this, but I think what really drives me is that the process itself is beautiful. That beauty is hidden to a lot of people — it is hard to describe to someone why I think fracture mechanics is beautiful, why I think physics is elegant — but that is really what inspires me in my research. I like to understand the way that things work, and I’m drawn in by both the complexity of the puzzle and the elegance of its individual components.

 Europa (detail) © Jamie Molaro

Europa (detail) © Jamie Molaro

What or who has been your biggest inspiration in your art?

It isn’t simple to untangle all the different processes that are influencing and driving the way a landscape evolves, or to understand the role each individual puzzle piece plays in creating the big picture. The complexity of all of this can be frustrating at times, but I think creating art that focuses on these objects helps me to process that. It isn’t that creating the art helps me understand these processes better in a factual sense, rather it helps me both understand and learn to navigate their complexity more effectively in my own brain.

The process of making science, the process of creating knowledge, naturally reflects the process of creating art. Everything that we observe about a planet is a convolution of its fundamental makeup and its past and present experiences. Some experiences leave marks that we can observe and interpret, others are erased. We only get the muddled end result of it all. This is fundamentally true about people, societies, and the world too. So when we create art, I think not only does the process of creation mirror the process of scientific exploration, but the product we produce reflects the complexity of our subject in both ways that are seen and unseen. So I guess when I create art, I see it as a form of exploration in parallel to my research. Through it, I explore my relationship to the subject of the art and to science, as well as to the artistic process, the art object, and myself.

I like to understand the way that things work, and I’m drawn in by both the complexity of the puzzle and the elegance of its individual components.

Describe your creative process. How much planning goes into a piece of art?

My paper landscapes really take a lot of work to create, and there are several steps. First, I choose a landscape of interest. I’ve made pieces from images before, but I prefer to work with topography data. For example, my moon pieces use data from the Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter on board the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. This data is freely accessible to the public, though learning to process it is non-trivial. For now I’ll just say that I process the data in Matlab. I pick out a section of the landscape I want to use, slice it up into layers, and outline the edge of each layer so that if you stacked the contours on top of each other they would look like a topography map.

 A single page of Jamie’s thesis. © Jamie Molaro

A single page of Jamie’s thesis. © Jamie Molaro

 Let the stacking begin! © Jamie Molaro

Let the stacking begin! © Jamie Molaro

 Detail of cut and stacked pages. © Jamie Molaro

Detail of cut and stacked pages. © Jamie Molaro

Usually my pieces have 30-50 layers, though Book of Moon had 150. Pieces based on images rather than topography have closer to 10. So these outlines are exported as individual vector files for each layer. Then I use a Silhouette Cameo to cut out each page. I call it my craft robot— it can cut or draw in 2D, so I load a topography contour into the software and a piece of paper into the machine and it cuts it out. When I finish cutting all the layers, I carefully stack them into a frame and try not to tear anything as I line up all the pages. The cutting of the pages takes a really long time. You would think that the robot does all the work, but the topography is really complex and the cuts aren’t always perfect. When I remove them from the machine they can be extremely delicate to handle. It can take 20 minutes for the robot to cut a single sheet, and another 20 minutes for me to remove the page from the cutting mat and flatten it. So depending on how many pages a piece has, it usually takes me on the order of 10s of hours to create.

One of the hardest parts about the process is actually picking out the paper. Some pieces have colored paper where the color represents something physical or scientific. For example, in Chasma Boreale (which I made for my PhD advisor), the colored paper reflects the layering observed in the northern ice cap (the northern polar layered deposits or NPLD, as they are called) of Mars.

 Chasma Boreale (detail) © Jamie Molaro

Chasma Boreale (detail) © Jamie Molaro

The Book of Moon was the first paper planet I ever made, and it is the last one that thick I’ll ever make! It took easily over 100 hours because it had so many pages. As I mentioned before, when I was getting ready to defend my PhD thesis, I decided I wanted to make art out of the pages. My thesis focused on how rocks break down on the Moon, so from the pages I carved a complex, cratered lunar landscape. Obviously I’m biased, but I think it is really a beautiful thing. It juxtaposes the science behind the breakdown process with the beauty of the landscape it helps to produce. You can also see the text and figures on the pages peek through the topography. So the pages of the thesis also reveal the scientific process, juxtaposing the creation of knowledge with the creation of art. 

This was really a labor of love, and a cathartic act I performed to mentally process finishing my degree. It was really challenging because the topography is complex, and as the first piece I ever made I had a lot to learn about the methodology still. In a way, the process of creating The Book of Moon also mirrors graduate school itself. It is a monumental effort to learn to do something, to teach yourself and practice the skills needed to do research. At the end of it all you are proud of the contribution to the field you have made to science, but at the same time, as you move forward and grow in your career, your research abilities, finesse, and techniques also grow. Eventually you look back and see that the work that took painstaking years in grad school to accomplish would now be much easier, take less time, be more precise. So this is now what I see in The Book of Moon compared to new pieces I create. I guess I see my learning process as an artist. I unknowingly turned my PhD thesis into my art thesis as well.

Do you have any works in progress that you'd like to talk about?

I actually have a new non-paper art piece I am working on. I'm building a music box that plays notes representing the orbital resonances of Jupiter’s three closest moons (Io, Europa, and Ganymede). I have always had a soft spot for the mechanical nature of music boxes, and I recently started learning to play the harp, so I wanted to try a musical art project. The fact that the moons are in an orbital resonance means that they orbit in a 1:2:4 ratio. So each time Ganymede orbits Jupiter once, Europa orbits twice, and Io orbits four times.

So the idea for the music box is that each moon will be assigned a single or group of notes, and whenever one moon passes another moon in orbit, their respective notes would play. I have calculated the timing of everything, but haven’t finished figuring out the actual notes yet. It’s a work in progress!

If you were selected as one the first artists to live on Mars, what art projects would you plan? What art supplies would you bring?

I think I would try to plan art projects focused on exploring the new, natural environment, and perhaps the challenges of living in it. That type of topic might help us all adjust to life there and learn to make it home. We wouldn’t be able to afford to waste anything, so materials would need to either be reusable or space/cost efficient to transport. So I would try to bring basic materials like glue, razors, Kapton tape (surely we will have lots of “space tape” there with us). The bulk of the art materials I would try to find from the martian environment itself. So perhaps we could use glue to make sculptures from martian dust; plenty of that around now. Spacecraft and supplies are typically designed to be low- to no-waste due to the cost of launching needless weight. However, if there were any trash such as used/broken components of the spacecraft or habitat, packing materials from crates we transported, or wrappers from sealed food, I would try to make something meaningful out of them.

STUDIO SPACEJason Daviss3