Artists and scientists can often use different lenses to look at the world.
But Sukanya Mani freely taps into her training in the sciences to inform her work as an artist. She folds and cuts paper into intricate patterns, often crafting abstract designs to represent scientific concepts.
Much of her work is inspired by science — the way gravity bends light, or the patterns caused by protons when they smash against each other at high velocity.
On a recent morning, Mani was in her basement studio at her home in Ballwin, finishing up some pieces and planning a show that she’d install at Kranzberg Arts Center a few days later.
Mani works with large white sheets of Tyvek, the synthetic paper used by builders to help protect buildings from the elements. She uses an X-Acto knife to cut the paper. Some of her pieces resemble delicate latticework.
When she’s finished cutting, she twists the flat paper into a new form and dangles it from the ceiling, allowing gravity to bend her work into its finished shape.
“I was listening to a podcast the other day about how light bends around gravity,” Mani said, while demonstrating how an in-process piece changes shape once she hangs it from above. “And one of the things that I’m doing with this piece is, when you move the paper or you warp the paper three dimensionally, you can see that these lines bend down. And that’s my artistic sense of how light bends with gravity.”
Science podcasts are one source of artistic inspiration for Mani. So, too, are the photos she’s taped to the wall in her studio. They’re not of mountains or the ocean or a landscape. Most are from the CERN laboratory in Switzerland, home to a particle accelerator that physicists use to study the tiniest building blocks of matter.
The photo records of their experiments, in which they smash tiny particles against each other at high speeds, reveal intricate shapes.
“What happens is magic. Things just come out of nothing,” Mani said. “As an artist, I see the interesting patterns that come out of it. There are beautiful circular and spiral patterns, as you can see.”
Mani was born in southern India but grew up all over that country, often in the shadows of the Himalayas. Her father was an engineer, building roads in the country’s remote border regions. The family moved every two years or so.
She had artistic tendencies but accepted her parents’ advice and studied chemistry at University of Madras.
“I was strongly encouraged to study the sciences,” she said with a laugh. “[But] you cannot take the artist out of the person, no matter how hard you try.”
Mani moved to the St. Louis area 20 years ago, when her then-husband found a job here. She didn’t have a work permit at first, and that gave her the perfect opportunity to get back in touch with her artistic side. She studiously read up on art history at public libraries, and after several years as a painter, she switched to her current practice of paper cutting.
In addition to making art, she does some teaching and consults as an arts administrator. She’ll spend months on a piece, working in careful 25-minute bursts. The breaks are to help her ward off carpal tunnel syndrome. She needs to remain highly focused throughout the cutting phase, as one errant snip would send a new piece to the scrapheap.
“It is really an expression of the intricacies of the physical world and the molecular world and all the ways that things combine and the patterns that then form,” gallery director Diana Hansen said of Mani’s work. “Even though they’re very delicate, they command the entire space. What always impresses me is when there’s a visual continuity and the pieces just flow, one to another.”
A few days after she was finishing some pieces at her home studio, Mani was at the Kranzberg gallery, working toward creating that visual continuity and sense of flow with the help of two friends, also artists.
The final stage of composition happens on-site as she installs her work. At the Kranzberg, she manipulated the paper into different shapes, taking into account how the pieces looked from different angles. A few times, she stepped outside to view the work from the sidewalk on Grand Boulevard. She also paid careful attention to how light passed through the work, and the shadow play on the white gallery walls.
“These two look really good. These two look good; there’s enough light passing through it, and it has an interesting formation,” Mani said at one point. “So I will add one more piece here to tie these three together. Because after that I will know — the next challenge will be where to put the other piece.”
Though Mani is precise throughout the creation of her paper sculptures, she allows for some uncertainty in her process. At times while she installed her show, she wasn’t quite able to get her work to dangle in the precise way she’d intended.
That’s just part of nature, she said.
“They have a mind of their own. After a certain point, it’s like a living organism,” she said. “It just doesn’t want to listen to you. It’s like a child. Some life experience teaches me that you should just let it do what it wants to do, at some point.”
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