Art Exhibit, ‘In the Wake,’ Offers Poetic Interpretation of Science

On the first floor of the John W. Olver Design Building, just beside the café, there’s a cozy gallery where art meets science. Along the windows, propped on wooden blocks, are curvy, white, 3D-printed sculptures that resemble coral; black and white architectural renderings hang, framed, along the soot-colored wall; at the back of the gallery, three, teal, LED-lit renderings morph as they depict movement; and in the center of the room, tall, crystal beams reach for the ceiling and glitter in the light. When the sun sets, pieces in the room illuminate. 

Taken together, these elements create a striking art exhibit called “In the Wake: Drawing Dynamics of Vortical Structures,” a collaboration among UMass Amherst faculty and student mechanical engineers, architects, and computer scientists, on view through March 10.  

Led by Assistant Professor of Architecture Pari Riahi, Professor of Mechanical Engineering Yahya Modarres-Sadeghi and Information and Computer Science Research Assistant Professor Ali Sarvghad, the display visualizes a natural phenomenon in fluid dynamics called vortex-induced vibrations in what Riahi calls a “poetic interpretation of the science.”

“Think about a river,” explains Modarres-Sadeghi. “You put a stick in it and the water has to go around it. Then, once the water, the flow, goes around the stick, it has to come back at some point, and it does this beautiful swirl toward the stick.”  

The swirl is created by movement from the object in the water, resulting in a circular, sweeping motion. It’s a fundamental problem in studies of fluid mechanics plus dynamics, which can be applied to research as miniscule as cancer cells and as grand as wind turbines.  

Though this natural phenomenon has typically been depicted with videos, Riahi and Modarres-Sadeghi wondered: Is it possible to transform this complex concept into something more accessible—and, perhaps, even beautiful—to the general public? 

Illustrating Fluid Dynamics for the Naked Eye 

Working with a cohort of students—architecture major Fey Thurber; graduate architecture students Erica DeWitt and Cami Quinteros; and PhD mechanical engineering candidates Pieter Boersma and Adrian Carleton—Riahi, Modarres-Sadeghi and Sarvghad—set to find out. 

Using the research from Modarres-Sadeghi’s lab as the backbone, the architects began to make tabulations in Excel and input the information into software and digital platforms, creating visualizations of the phenomena Modarres-Sadegh describes.

“We were able to illustrate for the naked eye what [Modarres-Sadeghi’s team] knew we should see,” Riahi explains.  

Integrating the three disciplines, the group made use of a UMass Interdisciplinary Research grant from the Provost’s Office that prioritized cross-collaboration and left the project open-ended, which allowed the team to come together to figure out the best way to display the findings. In the end, they created what Riahi calls “a method of [research] that’s neither ours nor theirs”—at once art and science.

Learning to Speak the Same Language 

For Riahi and Modarres-Sadeghi, who are both life partners and collaborators on this project, the excitement was amplified in working with their students.  

“We had students from different disciplines, from different backgrounds, at different points of study—all of them are extremely brilliant—working together,” Riahi says.  

There was a point where all of us started speaking the same language. That was really rewarding and fun.  

The mutual understanding didn’t come overnight. In all, it took nearly two years of collaborating to morph the research into the final exhibit, and it was done throughout the pandemic. The group started with meetings over Zoom, working together on the initial art renderings; once it was safe to do so, the team began to gather face-to-face.

To practice social distancing, “we did a lot of group meetings out in the backyard, bringing tea out when it was cold,” Riahi laughs.  

Eventually, as UMass reopened its doors for a typical semester, the group was able to share lab space. It’s what helped the project transcend from concept to reality.   ​

Only the Beginning

Ahead of the exhibit’s opening night, the team of architects and scientists found themselves battling against supply chain issues brought on by the pandemic as well as an advanced timeline that would have the exhibit open a full month earlier than originally anticipated.

They all got to work, including folks not directly involved with the research: Evan Janes, manager of the Olver Design Building Shop; Umang Patel, Ph.D. student in mechanical engineering; Daniela Caraeni, Ph.D. student in mechanical and industrial engineering; and even Riahi and Modarres-Sadeghi’s seven-year-old daughter, who helped paint the gallery wall.  

“She was surprisingly good at it,” Thurber says with a laugh.  

Assembling the exhibit was intense, with the weeks leading up to the exhibit’s debut regularly including eight-hour days that might consist of anything from sweeping floors to painting walls to sanding glass pipes by hand to artfully laying LED lights. 

But, Riahi notes, “It was a pleasure to spend so much time together. It feels as if we’ve gained friends.” 

When opening night rolled around on Jan. 27, the team says they expected about thirty patrons to attend the exhibit’s opening night. The crowded ended up being much, much bigger.  

“It was wild! We had the gallery full. It felt like hundreds,” DeWitt says. “I know we’re still very much in the pandemic, but [that experience] sort of felt like we were creeping out. It gave me hope.”  

The opening reception, a culmination of two years’ worth of work, left the team feeling rewarded.  

“It was the most fun I’ve ever had doing any part of my research,” Boersma says. “I’m super proud of what we’ve done here. When all those people came to the gallery opening, this really cemented that we’ve actually done something nice.” 

Opening night also helped put their work into perspective, Carleton says. “You get very myopic when you’re working in it. You need somebody’s fresh eyes who can see it as a whole.”

While Thurber enjoyed being able to explain her work to her friends, it was watching a sea of art students flood into the gallery, share ideas and ask questions that resonated with Modarres-Sadegh.

This is exactly what I was trying to get out of the exhibition. Now, I have an architecture student telling me about fluid mechanics. Maybe I should be grumpy, but someone else is now understanding what I do without having the background.

Modarres-Sadegh

Modarres-Sadegh and Riahi agree the project has opened a world of possibilities for future collaborations and opportunities to deeper understand how their respective fields of study work together. In this way, the discoveries they made will have long-lasting impacts, forging not just new opportunities for faculty research, but for student experiences, too. 

“We were grateful because this was an open-ended research problem,” Riahi says. “The original idea was that the installation is a demonstration of everything we have done, but we are realizing we are just getting started.”  

Find “In the Wake: Drawing Dynamics of Vortical Structures,” on the first floor of the Design Building through March 10. It was funded by a grant from the Provost’s Office

Learn more about the exhibit.