At first glance, most viewers assume the fluid-like images originated from a computer. So when Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Candace Wark and her art colleague Shirley Nannini explain how they produce their photographs using a wind tunnel, the typical reaction is pure amazement.
“People are usually surprised and very impressed,” says Wark. “They say something like, ‘Wow! What a creative process.’”
Blending science and art, the images reveal the beauty of airflow patterns captured using smoke, light, and colored filters. To visualize the movement of invisible air, Wark and Nannini introduce smoke into the wind tunnel by coating a wire with oil and running an electric current through it. As the oil burns, the smoke gets carried by the air flowing through the tunnel. It passes around and over objects placed in the tunnel, such as tennis balls or flat plates, and then the women photograph the patterns produced downstream. The images’ brilliant colors arise from filters placed over the lights used to illuminate the smoke.
“We work with the lighting, the speed, and various conditions in the wind tunnel until we get these images that people really respond to. For 25 years I’ve been doing scientific photography of flow patterns and they’ve always looked beautiful to me, but until Shirley, I had never thought of them as art.”
The two women met on a tennis court in 2003 and later explored airflow art in 2012 as part of a project for one of Nannini’s photography classes.
“I still have the first image we took and it’s so crude, yet in it I could see the beginning of something that could be very exciting,” says Nannini, who trained in photography after retiring from a 30-year teaching career. “Candace brought a wealth of knowledge from her scientific background and research, but she had never applied it to an artistic venue. So it was a learning process for us both. We explored every idea we had to see where it took us.”
Captivated by their early results, the two continued to experiment until they had captured images that they considered art worthy. Next, they applied to local art exhibits.
The duo’s first airflow art exhibit went on display in 2012 at the 737 North Michigan building in Chicago. Since then, their work has appeared in more than 25 exhibits, including a recent exhibition at Willis Tower in downtown Chicago.
Their work and upcoming exhibit schedule can be viewed at www.windflowphotography.com