Mark McCombs, an exhibiting artist and professor in the Department of Mathematics, combines math, fractals and origami to create unique paper sculptures and 2D images. McCombs is restructuring the first-year seminar he teaches to reflect what he learned while exhibiting his art in Stockholm, Sweden last summer.
Staff writer Mary Mac Porter talked to McCombs about the similarities between literature and mathematics and how he's combining numbers and art in unique ways to attract math-adverse students to the subject.
The Daily Tar Heel: How would you describe the first-year seminar that you're restructuring and the art you're creating in the process?
MM: The art projects grew out of the first-year seminar I was asked to teach, I think, maybe 10 years ago now. The first few semesters I taught it, I knew how to talk about (math) topics, but I didn't create art because I felt like I'm one of those people that doesn't have any art in me. I appreciate art and enjoy it and everything, but I was always intimidated by trying to make my own art.
Then one semester, after a couple years, the first day of class... a student came up and asked, 'Are we going to do origami?' I said, 'Well, I don't know how to do that.' He said, 'I really like origami,' and I said, 'Tell you what, how about if you teach the class for two class meetings?' So, he did. I really liked what he showed us how to do.
Then in 2015, my younger brother — who was an amazing guitarist — died unexpectedly from a heart attack. I brought home all his music, so I could archive it for his son who also plays guitar. So, as I'm transferring all this music, I've got the headphones on, and I'm folding paper, and then all of the sudden, (the origami) started coming out of me. I feel like in some ways it's a gift to me from my brother.
What this discovery has inspired me to do is redesign my first-year seminar, so that it's now focused on making origami and making fractal tessellations.
DTH: How does your artwork challenge preconceived notions about math?
MM: I've been teaching here for 30 years, and I've been teaching this math art class for around 10. But for 30 years, whenever someone asks what I do, and I tell them I teach math, they kind of back away from me or they'll say, 'I hate math. I'm not good at it.'