Artist and Berlin Drawing Room instructor Ian Jehle meets us in his studio to discuss art, science, color theory, and how his teaching practice ties it all together.
Ian Jehle at his studio in GlogauAIR residency, Kreuzberg, Berlin on 12 August, 2020, interviewed by Heidy Weingartner.
BDR: Reading your biography I realize your trajectory is quite unconventional. You have a background in computer science, philosophy and art, and also engineering. How did your experience in different fields lead to where you are today?
Ian: It was two paths that were happening at the same time and that eventually came together. I simultaneously studied computer science and philosophy and art. When I finished graduate school all the good paying work tended to be in the sciences, so I ended up working for a company where I started by making technical drawings and because I was good at the calculations they ended up sending me to engineering school. Meanwhile I also had my separate art practise which I pursued very seriously.
It was when I started to teach that I realised how much I loved it, so I ended up quitting the engineering job, and as soon as I quit that job the engineering started showing up at my work in the arts.
As soon as my art work and my paid job were in the same field then all the things started coming together.
BDR: What mediums do you work with and what is the main theme you explore in your works?
Ian: I work in drawing and installation. It’s often with some sort of audience participation. I’m very interested in the idea of art as research, so that’s where the audience comes into play. Typically what I’ll do is to create an installation where either my students or the audience would build something based on a set of instructions, and we’d like to see if there’s any sort of natural pattern emerged, has anything come from it?
The way I think of it is to imagine kids playing with a bunch of blocks or triangle tiles. They play with them, they see how they connect, how they do or don’t fit together, they see what shapes they can make, and then those kids from that initial play can go into art, design, architecture or mathematics. But it really all starts with that initial experience of how things fit together in the world.
So my focus is in this idea that there are patterns and beautiful things that emerge simply out of play and out of experimentation.
BDR: How do your projects come about?
Ian: I tend to explore a lot of the areas of the traditional teachings in art. So I’ll do things with perspective, with tiles and mosaics and things like that.
These are areas where art has already legitimately contributed to the conversations in the sciences, so those tend to be my starting off points.
For example, when we make a snowflake and we unfold it, that’s kind of a symmetry, every kid looks at that and goes sort of like “Oh!”. So those important concepts in science, maths and other applied fields such as architecture and engineering all come from that kind of kindergarten play. The form of the projects come from trying to come up with the best way of exploring that.
BDR: Who are the people that inspire your work the most?
Ian: The first person who always comes up is Sol LeWitt. I particularly love the works he made where we really wouldn’t know the outcome. Or when the outcome does something that alters the architecture that the piece is made in.
Also people who tend to think in terms of systems, for example a lot of people who taught at the Bauhaus and turned that knowledge into some form of education. And also Hans Haacke, an artist who taught in New York for a very long time, he did a lot of work in getting students to recognise systems.
It’s about how two elements fit together, where they come from, what they are made of etc. Recognising that behind everything there’s a system with forces and rules.
BDR: What is your greatest aspiration as an artist?
Ian: It’s important to me to just put myself and my students in a position where we contribute to the conversation. I think artists have a lot to contribute, and people in other areas are just starting to see it. Sometimes more in the form of the science comes first and then the artist just gives a rendition of science or a representation of it, and I think that conversation can be a lot deeper.
So at the end of the day if I put either myself or my students in a position to help solve problems in the world and to participate in conversations where maybe they were considered outside of their realm, I’d consider my career incredibly successful.
BDR: Your upcoming online workshop at Berlin Drawing Room is called The Art and Science of Color. So what does color mean to art and to science?
For me color is really two things: it’s the scientific phenomenon of light rays triggering certain receptors in the eye and it’s how our conscious brains interpret those colors. Once we understand the scientific and psychological aspects of color we can ask questions such as: How do we distinguish one color from another? Why do we group colors and name them the way we do?
How can we use color to create a visual reality that reflects our experience of the world around us?
BDR: What would you say to those interested in participating in your next workshop, The Art and Science of Color at BDR?
Ian: We will look at how we learned about color in Kindergarten and I’m going to make some changes to that. I take this experience we all had as kids with colors and crayons and show you how it’s tied into the bigger world.
The Art and Science of Color will inspire through ideas and concepts, as well as provide practical skills that could be used in another practice. Learning color theory can be useful whether you are a painter, designer, gamer or even if you make spreadsheets all day. Let’s learn how coloring those spreadsheets can provide and give information. So I’m gonna take you from being a little kid to being an adult in six classes.
The Art and Science of Color
August 26 – September 30
6 x Wednesdays from 6-8 pm CET
Ian Jehle is a Canadian artist and teacher based in Berlin and Washington DC. He is currently on the faculty at American University in Washington DC and previously was head of engineering at the construction firm P&J Arcomet. Jehle studied computer science, mathematics, philosophy and visual arts at American University, Kansas City Art Institute, Brandeis University and Columbia University.
Jehle’s work focuses on the intersection of math, engineering and visual arts. His large scale math-based installation projects are often participatory in nature, using games, puzzles and live events where participants are invited to create works of art by following a simple set of mathematical rules. Jehle considers his teaching an important part of his art-making process and often includes groups of students in the design and implementation of his project based works.