Connecting chemistry and the arts: Gillian Holzer explores Margaret Fowler Garden’s wall painting

Graphic by Diamond Pham

Gillian Holzer SC ’19 has a passion for art history. As an intern for Zebala & Partners this past summer, she was able to explore this passion further and combine it with another love: chemistry.

“I took an upper division art history course my first semester and general chemistry, and I really liked both of them, and everything just kind of snowballed from there,” Holzer said.

These interests eventually led Holzer in the direction of inorganic chemistry and materials science. The inorganic chemistry field explores the properties of metals that the general population uses on a daily basis.

These metals, specifically transition metals, make up a large portion of the periodic table, but often defy the rules that are taught in general chemistry courses. This means that students often study these metals later in their college career.

These metals are responsible for the creation of vibrant pigments, and Holzer has been able to use this chemical knowledge in her thesis research.

Over the summer, Holzer explored the dyes used in a wall painting in the Margaret Fowler Memorial Garden on Scripps College’s campus. For her thesis, she is focusing on the use of two different chromium dyes in this same painting, and hoping to confirm their chemical makeup.

“I think that I personally find a lot of things to be very interesting about materials science, which I guess is more the vein that my thesis truly is in because it’s trying to understand a material and how it behaves,” Holzer said.

For her thesis, she is synthesizing lead chromate and preparing the pigment in a way similar to how the artist of the wall painting, Ramos Martinez, did. He used a wax emulsion medium, and she is interested in comparing the chemical properties of this material with a linseed oil binder to see if there are any differences between them.

Holzer’s thesis advisor, Professor Nancy Williams at the W.M. Keck Science Department, noted a similar interest in chemistry and the materials around her. While she is a chemist first and foremost, she said, “I’m really interested by the applications of inorganic chemistry in other facets of our lives.”

The ability to see chemistry as a part of our everyday world is natural to Williams. As she explained: “I’ve always seen chemistry in the world and, to me, it’s never been an abstraction. It’s not the land of make-believe to me.”

This connection between two seemingly different fields, chemistry and art, is a strong reminder that chemistry, or science more generally, allows us to understand the world on a much deeper level. The distinction made between STEM fields and more humanities-based fields is irrelevant, as they are naturally connected.

In fact, this connection is vital to the art history and conservation fields, as much of conversation requires a chemical understanding of the pigment and dyes being used. As Williams said, “You’re looking at a material, and you want to understand what’s going on a molecular level.”

That’s chemistry and materials science working together.

Caitlyn Fick is a chemistry major at Scripps College. She enjoys mountains, trees, water, and dogs.

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