The Math in Art

My father is an artist, not by profession but by passion. Growing up, he was always using his artistic ability in some way to serve others whether that was designing backgrounds for the school Christmas play or drawing cartoons for my siblings and me. Art held high esteem in my home and was a way to build relationships, express one’s heart and serve the community. I was recently reminded of the importance of Art in education by one of my colleagues. STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) is becoming the next evolution of the STEM acronym.  Some may think of it as another buzzword of the education field, but it does serve to remind us all of the importance of creativity, expression, and beauty.

While math is both my passion and profession, I have a distinct appreciation for the art in mathematics. If you are a student in one of my math classes, you will do origami. While origami has long been thought of as a child’s craft, recently it has been used to solve significant modern day problems. Origami has been used to fold solar panels to fit in rockets for space exploration. Origami has been used to design stents for use in surgical procedures. Origami is even being used to theorize at a microscopic level to find ways to cure diseases.

One aspect that is striking about origami is how much math is evident within the art. As a math instructor, one of my goals is to help students to see the math around them. When I fold paper with my students, I strive to use mathematically rich vocabulary with terms like – edge, rotate, parallel, midline, diagonal, symmetry, etc. As students hear, see, and do the paper folding the synapses in their brains fire making connections to many representations around these words. For example, take a look at the images below.


These photos show a folded heart model and an unfolded heart model, where tracing has been used to highlight the fold lines in black ink. What mathematics do you notice? Can you see what I see? – A line of symmetry, points of intersection, parallel lines, perpendicular lines, a trapezoid, a pentagon, etc. For younger children you might ask – “ How many triangles do you see?” and for older children you might ask “ What types of triangles do you see?” Purposely bringing out the math in this origami model is a way for students to reflect on how one sheet a paper transforms into a heart. It also provides opportunities to predict and discuss what would happen if one would alter the paper folding actions. I know of so many teachers who embrace art in their classrooms which is an amazing addition to the school day. As you think of your art activities this year, think about ways you incorporate mathematics into art. I’d love to hear some of your ideas!

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