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Helaman Ferguson  –  mathematical sculptor
Click for larger image " What worthless looking rocks await my hand and mind to transform them to beautiful and irresistible artifacts with the imprint of timeless mathematical theorems? "
How were you motivated to choose your particular field?
  I suppose I generate evidence of life in the face of death. My natural father was a visual artist, my natural mother a model in an art school in Los Angeles. I was born in Salt Lake City, probably closer to Mars than LA in many respects, especially the high arid mountain plateau. My mother was killed by lightning when I was three, my father drafted into the Pacific theater of World War II. Life on Earth has its risks. My adopted father was an Irish stone mason, my adopted mother from colonies in northern Mexico, and they graciously raised me in upstate New York.

My genetic nature was art and science, my environmental nurture was learning to work with my hands and to appreciate raw materials of little apparent value. As a kid I was pretty raw myself. As I went through the New York Regents public school system in the post–Sputnik era I had many opportunities to study science. I chose to do creative math in a liberal arts college rather than an engineering school. Our society tends to compartmentalize people and professions, maybe with good reasons. Overcoming this compartmentalization has been a continuing battle for me.

I refuse to be diminished by being just a mathematician, by being just a sculptor––I persist in both. Fortunately for me our society on Earth is diverse enough to permit both. While it is likely the colony could make room for some of my work, what would be the effect on a creative artist of the colony's intense socialization and immediate survival goals? Would a Martian colony built upon valid constraints in the face of omnipresent life and death risks have room for me?

  Click for larger image
What can you share about your creative process?
    At this moment I see two parts, mental and physical. It is important to me that they are hard to separate. Mental: mathematics, its ideas, symbols, and equations are an essential part of my personal design language. Much of my sculptural body of work celebrates the remarkable achievements of mathematics as an abstract art form––a human activity spanning thousands of years. These ideas combined with my tools and materials take the form of an undeniable will.

Physical: my aesthetic choice of raw materials tends to be stone from geological activity spanning millions of years. It is very exciting for me to learn a new stone. I have one now, one billion years old, waiting for me to stop writing here. I use many different kinds of specialized tools, including computers, virtual image projection from equations, tool position and orientation monitoring, air hammers and drills, carbide cutters, diamond corers and saws, diamond chains, cables, pulleys, hydraulic rams, gantry cranes. This is a high risk environment of air, electricity, water, dust, and chips which calls for special breathing apparatus, vision and hearing protection, various kinds of body armor and insulation. Definitely postmodern man. I use hammer and chisel too, but while a lot has changed, it is the same as when our ancestors banged a soft rock with a hard rock and made a magical form.

My mathematical forms arrive by my subtractive process: my computer tool position and orientation monitoring system does not do the cutting work, I do. The system gives me quantitative information. I want it this way because I learn the mathematical form which no one has ever seen, touched, felt, walked around, or crawled through. This learning is like learning a piece of music or dance by heart. Having learned the new form, it becomes part of my sculptural repertoire, independently now of the computer system. My studio is a door or canal through which mathematically designed things take form with Earth's geological materials. For the mental part, the same mathematics and design language is true on Mars; for the physical part, what would be the result of my working with martian materials?

What ideas do you have for a future human community on Mars?
  At this point I have more questions than ideas. Mars as a new environment offers new risks––does lightning kill mothers on Mars? If not there will be other perhaps more interesting risks, certainly ones not easily predicted from here. Risks cause communities to respond, and I suppose that it is important to accept in advance their appearance. What about the risk of the colony harboring an artist or generations of them? My family heritage is of pioneers and colonizers. Indeed, I have found it important to leave the colonies of my origins and take up residence in older more deeply rooted communities, which can support my work in emotional as well as material ways.

Even so, carving stone, even with computers as I do, involves operating in a harsh environment. In the process of carving stone I undo, by violence, millions of years of geological material forming processes. With each new stone I carve I learn how to undo its geology and at the same time to convolve it with mathematical ideas. What raw materials does the red planet offer me as a sculptor? What worthless looking rocks await my hand and mind to transform them to beautiful and irresistible artifacts with the imprint of timeless mathematical theorems?

See more of Helaman Ferguson's mathematical sculpture at:

See information about the book, Helaman Ferguson; Mathematics in Stone and Bronze at:

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