An Evening of Computer Films with Sarasota’s Renowned Scientist and Artist, Ken Knowlton, At MoMA – N.Y.C.’s Museum of Modern Art, Monday, March 26, 7:00 p.m.

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An Evening of Computer Films with Sarasota’s Renowned Scientist and Artist, Ken Knowlton, At MoMA – N.Y.C.’s Museum of Modern Art, Monday, March 26, 7:00 p.m.

Ken Knowlton surrounded by many of his unique mosaic portraits of famous people.

Normally one would not think that a person with degrees in Engineering Physics (Cornell University), followed by a Ph.D. in Computer Science (M.I.T.), who then became a celebrated Bell Labs researcher in the Computer Techniques Research Department (1962-1982), would also become an award-winning mosaic artist. But exploring both the worlds of art and science came naturally to Sarasota resident, Ken Knowlton, who will be giving a talk at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City this March about his early computer art films of the 1960s.

When inquiring about the roots of his dual interests, Knowlton fondly acknowledges that childhood, summertime expeditions to art museums while visiting his aunt in New York City, left an indelible impression. When you see his seashell portraits, it’s easy to wonder if perhaps he was most attracted to the pointillist style paintings of the French Impressionists, while also to the strong iconic portraits of the early Coptic mosaics displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

However, learning that he worked with X-ray microscopy for his thesis at Cornell, provides another clue to what possibly inspired Knowlton’s unique synthesis of art and science. Seeing physical detail at a hundred times the resolution of the human eye, may have combined with his early knowledge of the various visual perception techniques he was exposed to in art museums, to coalesce into a new way of seeing physical reality. Because, in 1963, Ken invented the computer graphics programming language, BEFLIX, to create some of the world’s first animated films for Bell Labs. In all, he has 30 U.S. patents on computer graphics hardware and software (20 as sole inventor) and has given more than 150 talks on computer graphics and computer art at universities and companies. By 1971, Knowlton had made an early art-sci career cross-over by accepting a one-year position as Visiting Professor of Computer Graphics and Computer Art at the University of California in Santa Cruz.

(left-to-right) photo of real human eye, accurate plan (“map”) formulated by artist’s own software programs, final mosaic of unretouched seashells

While using the traditional mosaic material of square-cut ceramic or glass tiles to create the gradation of color values required to simulate a 3-dimensional face is difficult enough to accomplish, Ken’s choice of using irregularly-shaped and unevenly colored seashells, added an unprecedented level of complexity to his portrait mosaics. So, to create an accurate “map” for positioning the pieces, he wrote various custom computer image-processing programs. And, to obtain the necessary far-sight view of the work while he finessed the final positioning of the mosaic pieces on his work-table, he devised an ingenious physical apparatus of mirrors that bounced his sight-path off a ceiling mirror!

After Bell Labs, Ken went on to work for other companies including: SRI, Via Video, Dec Systems Research Center, Wang Labs, and Netwave/QuickBuy. Meanwhile, he also won nine prizes for seashell and other mosaics and was included in 24 other juried shows, including the current international exhibition, “Science Inspires Art: OCEAN,” that is on view at the New York Hall of Science until February 25, 2018.

Entire chapters are devoted exclusively to Ken’s seashell mosaics in the following books:  Escher, Dali & the Artists of Optical Illusion by Al Seckel, (Chapter 11); Sterling, NY, 2004; Experimental Animation by Russett & Starr, (Chapter 8), Van Nostrand, NY, 1976; Artist and Computer by Ruth Leavitt, (Ken Knowlton: pp 65-69), Harmony Books, NY, 1976. Also, his artwork and commentary have been included in 20 other books and 100 magazines and newspapers.

(Sarasota, Florida) “Celebrated Bell Labs Researcher Creates Mosaic Seashell Portraits of Cultural Icons,” written by Cynthia Pannucci, Founder-Director of Art & Science Collaborations, Inc. (ASCI), a nonprofit begun in New York City 30-years ago.

Ken moved to Sarasota in 2011 and is currently seeking a public venue for showing his fascinating mosaic art… and sharing their secrets!




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