M.C. Escher marries art and mathematics

HCC professor Kathy Pantelis explores the artist's impact on the math world.

There is a definite perceived separation between mathematics and the arts. The two seemingly exist on very different planes — one in the in realm of logic, the other in creativity. But Kathy Pantelis, a professor of mathematics at Hillsborough Community College, has spent years exploring the truly integral presence of mathematics in the world of art.

Pantelis, who teaches Topics in Mathematics, Explorations in Mathematics and College Algebra at HCC, has been exploring the work of artist M.C. Escher since she was in graduate school. Escher is well known for his mathematically inspired watercolors, woodcuts and lithographs.

On Monday, Oct. 19, Pantelis will showcase her interest in Escher’s marriage of mathematics and art, with a presentation open to the public at HCC’s Dale Mabry Campus, “The Math Behind M.C. Escher’s Tessellations.”

Escher’s work with tessellations, which is a very structured mathematic practice, immediately fascinated Pantelis. Escher’s tessellations were inspired by the repetitive, geometrical patterns on the stone castles in Alhambra, Spain. Although he was not a trained mathematician, Escher saw how mathematics could improve his art, and quickly put it into practice, experimenting with tessellations, perspective and illusions. 

Many of Escher’s most famous pieces are illusion-based, and use mathematics to create irregular perspectives and impossible objects. However, he continued to create tessellations throughout every decade of his career. According to Pantelis, it was the structured nature of tessellations (repeating geometric shapes that fit together like puzzle pieces, but never overlap) that made her feel a deep connection with Escher’s work.

“A lot of the perspective and illusion stuff is out of my realm of thinking. I’m not built that way,” Pantelis said. “That pattern and organization of tessellations jumped out at me. There’s a comfort I find in those because they are so mathematically organized and displayed.”

The construction of a tessellation, being a step-by-step process, employs both creativity and mathematics. According to Pantelis, this allowed her to experience art as something she could handle and enjoy.

“It’s the mathematician in me, being so structured. I’m kind of wound a little tightly — most mathematicians are like that,” Pantelis said. “The reason we like math is because we know we can use this formula this way to get this result. Nothing is ever going to change in multiplication, and we like the consistency of it.”

In his over 50-year career, Escher produced a beautifully diverse arsenal of lithographs, woodcuts, mezzotints and watercolors. His work explored symmetry, topology, infinity and the division of planes.

Beyond her total fascination with how Escher employed mathematics in his work, Pantelis said that she loves how he used an image to represent grander ideas — things organized in the middle and chaotic on the outside.

“I think my favorite was the way he represented infinity,” Pantelis said. “A tessellation starts bigger on the outside and gets smaller inside, and the reverse. Those being limits were his way of representing infinity.”

She continued, “Truly, if we weren’t limited by our human vision and our human writing instruments, we could go on forever doing that. The only reason he had to stop is because we are human, and we have human visual limitations where we just can’t write any smaller.”

And while Escher’s work was laden with detailed mathematics and deep intrinsic meaning, it also presents the subject in a more digestible way. He had a keen ability to trick the eye and mind using mathematics.

“A lot of people don’t use the word ‘fun’ with mathematics,” Pantelis said. “To put that trickery, that fun, into mathematics is pretty amazing. It really does reach out and expose a lot on non-math people to that side of math. It makes them see that there’s a power in math, and there are possibilities in math that they never knew existed.”

Escher’s work has recently made a major local splash, with the Escher at the Dali exhibit at the Dali Museum in St. Pete. The exhibit, which will run until Jan. 3, features lithographs, woodcuts, prints, drawings and sculptures. As Escher was one of Dali’s personal favorites, Pantelis feels like the exhibit is fitting and enlightening for appreciators of Dali’s work.

“I think it’s wonderful. I think that whenever they share the Dali home with another artist, be it Picasso, Da Vinci or Escher, I think it’s a wonderful exposure for people to make comparisons to see different types of art,” Pantelis said. “As artists give props to other artists, I certainly think we should expose ourselves to that work as well.”

After Pantelis’s presentation at HCC, she challenges the audience to make tessellations of their own. In a combined effort by Dali members, faculty, students and volunteers, the tessellations will be entered to be featured in an exhibit in HCC’s Gallery 3 from January to March 2017.

The power of Escher’s work exists in its ability to connect the segregated worlds of mathematics and visual arts. His pieces are visual manifestations of the ubiquity of art and math in the universe.

“It was amazing how he blended the two together so that artists and mathematicians alike both feel it’s their work,” Pantelis said. “It’s a perfect blend of both.”

Kathy Pantelis speaks on "The Math Behind M.C. Escher's Tessellations," Hillsborough Community College (Dale Mabry Campus), DTECH 300, Mon., Oct. 19 from 2-3:15 p.m. 

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