Fermilab launches artist-in-residence program

Artist Lindsay Olson presents examples of her work to the Fermilab Art Gallery Committee earlier this year. Photo: Georgia Schwender, OC

As curator of the Fermilab Art Gallery, Georgia Schwender is always looking for new ways to connect the worlds of art and science. With the launch of the laboratory’s first artist-in-residence program, she’s hoping to bring those worlds as close together as she can.

For the next 12 months, Fermilab will welcome Oak Park artist Lindsay Olson behind the scenes, giving her the opportunity to observe the inner workings of the laboratory. Olson, who works in a variety of artistic media, will then create a series of pieces that tells the story of Fermilab in a way that it has never been told. In the process, she will serve as an ambassador to the arts community, inviting them to look at the science of particle physics from a new, more resonant perspective.

“I think people can be afraid of physics, but they’re also intrigued by it,” Schwender said. “They need a way to understand it, not necessarily through the eyes and words of physicists, but through another person interpreting them.”

Schwender has been thinking about an artist-in-residence program for years, but finding the right person helped make the idea become reality. Olson, a part-time teacher of textiles in art and fashion studies at Columbia College in Chicago, has carved out a niche working with government agencies to tell stories through art. From 2008 to 2012 she served a residency at the Oak Park Police Department, learning about police work and creating a series of pieces she called “Tools of the Trade: A Resident’s View of Law Enforcement.”

She also just finished an 18-month stint as a visiting artist at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, learning about the science of wastewater treatment. She created a series of textile pieces called “Manufactured River.” That work will be on exhibit through Nov. 29 at the Oak Park Public Library.

The project, Olson said, made her realize that she could use her art to learn more about science and to communicate it to people who might not otherwise see beneath the surface.

“The payoff for me is the thrill of learning new things from experts in the field,” she said. “I like to use my art to invite in other people who, like me, may not have that technical training.”

Schwender met Olson in March, after seeing her give a talk at North Central College about her residency with the Oak Park police. She knew right away that Olson was the right person to pilot this new program at Fermilab.

Olson will spend time at Fermilab speaking to physicists, taking tours and learning about particle physics. She’s already begun, she said, talking to a couple of scientists at Fermilab, reading a book on the Large Hadron Collider, learning more about neutrinos, and creating artwork based on these interactions. Some of her work will be shown as part of the Art@CMS exhibit next year.

The laboratory will pay a small stipend to help her cover expenses for travel and art supplies, and in return, Olson will use her work to help communicate the story of Fermilab to people who may not have heard it otherwise.

“I’m really excited for the opportunity,” she said. “I want my art to be useful, to help people think about reality in new ways. I want to use it as a way to invite people in.”

Andre Salles