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Thursday April 22nd

UNC math professor uses origami to combine numbers and art

Math professor Mark McCombs.
Buy Photos Math professor Mark McCombs.

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.' 

So part of what I hope to do in this particular class — because it's not the traditional solve the equations, draw the graphs, do the calculus kind of thing — is maybe help persuade people who are coming in intimidated that they don't have to be intimidated. I'm not trying to force them to become a math major or something like that. 

My hope for the students in this first-year seminar is that when the semester ends, they're not so quick to say, 'I can't think mathematically.' I think another thing that has been an unexpected moment of insight for me is, I guess, my version of that is when someone would say, 'Hey, I make art,' and I would go, 'Well, I can't do that.' Now I don't feel as intimidated. 

I guess if you find the medium you connect with, we can all express ourselves. And that's what art really is, and I think that's what math is too: you try to express how you understand the world through relationships of objects and ideas.

DTH: What is your favorite part of all of the work you do here at UNC?

MM: It's always gratifying to me when, at the end of the semester, I get my course reviews back, and a student writes, 'I never thought I'd say this, but my favorite class was my math class this semester.' That's not because of me — I mean, I was part of it — but when that happens for that student, it's what my younger brother would always describe as moments of grace. In his music, he saw moments of grace that happened because of experiencing harmony — whether it's musical harmony or harmony with a person or whatever. 

DTH: Do you have anything else you'd like to add about your work in math, at UNC or in art?

MM: I did undergrad and grad here. I was an English major through my junior year. I took math all along because I liked it, but I wanted to write. Then when I went home over Christmas my junior year, I started to panic because if I graduate with a degree in English, (I thought), 'I'm going to end up being a teacher.' It's not that I thought that was a bad job. I just never imagined I could do that. 

So I switched my major to math, and some practical joker somewhere said, 'Okay, well guess what? You're going to be a teacher.' But that's another moment of grace for me. 

When I tell people that I was an English major before I switched to math, lots of times their response is 'Wow! That's a big change.' For me, it doesn't feel like a big switch because the parts of me that allow me to respond to literature are the parts of me that allow me to respond to the beauty of the way mathematical objects and ideas relate together. 

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