Sienna Morris’ heart hangs on the wall of her studio, impossibly intricate on dark, coffee-stained paper. At a distance, it’s an anatomical illustration, slick blood vessels and striated muscle. A little closer, it becomes clear that the lines are actually thousands of minute points.
Finally, the points resolve into numbers and symbols—equations for stroke volume, cardiac output, ejection fraction. It’s an entire ticker drawn out of the science that makes it tick. Nearby, disembodied hands composed of the numbers of a clock face play a cello built painstakingly from the speeds at which sound travels parallel to the grain of each wood, strung with Hertz frequencies of individual notes. There’s also a portrait of comedian Stephen Colbert, drawn with his number of Twitter followers at any given moment—Morris says they changed by about 40,000 over the 28 days it took her to complete the piece—and Patrick Stewart as Locutus of Borg, drawn with flocking algorithms.
Morris calls her technique “numberism”—a play on pointillism, its paint-with-dots closest cousin. To get the detail necessary, her work is done using a combination of paint, pencils, etching, pen, and ink. It’s a laborious process that has only gotten more complicated since she started using the technique in 2008. For two years, she stuck with the numbers of the clock, a metaphor for the fleeting moments she was trying to capture. Then, slowly, she began to branch into math and science.
“I’ve always sort of wanted to get a better understanding of the world around me, sort of in a superhero sense, where you walk around through life, and you look around, and the underlying data is just evidentto you, and you can just see it, and understand it, and know it,” says Morris. “And being able to represent that in my art just worked out exactly for that crazy superhero dream.”
Morris spent nearly six months researching the science behind her illustration of the Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment.
First came a snail, drawn with the Fibbonacci sequence that defines the golden spiral of its shell. Soon, her art became a vehicle for more—a means of understanding the complex science that fascinated her. She spent nearly six months researching the science behind her next piece: an illustration of the Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment. “I walked away from the piece with this understanding of the data that was more real, and it stuck with me, and I realized it was actually helping,” says Morris.
Morris researches the math and science behind each piece exhaustively. She’s an avid autodidact—her Portland studio is full of books on everything from neurochemistry to quantum physics—and over time, her art has grown more and more complex; and with it, her understanding of incredibly complex topics.
“When I first started, I’d just do low-level research,” Morris explains. “I’d go, ‘Okay, this is a cool idea. What numbers really speak for it well?’ and I’d learn a little about how it functions, or something like that. But now, it’s evolved to the point where it’s meant to be an actual learning experience.”
She’s also started to narrow her studies—to focus in on the fields she really wants to understand more in depth. Morris had originally planned to choose a single focus, but she ended up torn between two: the brain, and space. “The brain and space are two fields I think of as the last frontiers,” she explains. “Every single day, we learn something new about them. Every single day, we find out that we were just completely wrong about a concept we’ve had for centuries or decades.”
It’s evolved to the point where it’s meant to be an actual learning experience.—
The guide for understanding Morris’ art—the visual syllabus, if there was one—lies, naturally, in her self-portrait. Called Universal Proprioception the portrait shows Morris’ face drawn of her questions about the universe (“Is it infinite?” “How did consciousness emerge?” etc.). Mathematical problems make up the rest of her form: equations for firing neurons shift into the triple-alpha process, the nuclear fusion of elements in stars. Her ear is Hubbel’s constant for the expansion of the universe. Her shoulders and hair are composed of science she wants to better understand: Drake’s Equation, for the probability of intelligent life capable of sending and receiving signals; the Jeans instability equation, for star formation in a nebula; Conservation of angular momentum, “just ’cause I think it’s pretty.”