New mural merges the scientific and fantastic to tell a story about SBQMI

13 Oct2020

Pictured, above: Artist Gina Leon stands beside the mural after installation on September 18, 2020 (image credit: Pinder Dosanjh). Right: the mural on the first-floor landing (image credit: James Day). 

A new mural at the Stewart Blusson Quantum Matter Institute (SBQMI) greets entrants to the Brimacombe Building. Positioned on the landing between the first and second floors, it is a playful representation of the relationship between art and science. The mural was painted by artist Gina Leon and is the result of a proposal by Kassandra Darbel, James Day, and Vis Naidoo in early 2020 to bring wellness elements, such as artwork and plants, into shared SBQMI spaces. 

Leon worked with a committee comprised of Darbel, Day, Amy Qu, and Ziliang Ye to establish a direction and inform the work; the result is a piece that demonstrates the dialogue between art and condensed matter physics, placing images of researchers and their work on a backdrop that reflects the natural world. 

The work includes an acknowledgement of the land, and a nod to our Musqueam hosts; viewers will see different images that, taken together, show an active environment and represent the diversity and scope of SBQMI. In addition to guiding the creative direction of the visuals, Ye and Qu, an artist in her own right, provided the factual basis for some of the scientific elements, so the work is grounded in the day-to-day research that takes place in the building. Some of the images were provided by former Damascelli lab postdoctoral fellow and newly appointed Assistant Professor at the University of California-Los Angeles, Christopher Gutiérrez; these became a source of inspiration as the work evolved. The result is a piece in which moments of realism are punctuated by images that are slightly surreal, implying the fun and creativity that often goes unseen in natural science research.

It was important to the committee that the mural reflect more than scientists at work; it shows why that work is meaningful, placing SBQMI and its people within a larger story.

“This mural plays with scale,” said Leon. “We see scientists living in the landscape of a crystal, which in scale is largely magnified. Scientists are literally immersed in the landscape of their work, where we see them interacting with equipment, techniques, theoretical equations, and concepts. We also see a killer whale, a dogwood flower and a black bear: images representative of the physical landscape in which all of this takes place.”

Leon is an interdisciplinary artist who draws inspiration from weathered surfaces and textures, layering images and vignettes that tell stories both as pieces and altogether. Because of the time restrictions imposed by pandemic-related health and safety protocols, Leon adapted what might have been a mural painted directly onto the wall over a period of weeks to a work printed on canvas. The result is a piece that looks and feels more like a painting in a gallery. 

The relationship between art and science, and physics in particular, is something that the leadership at SBQMI has been eager to draw out for some time. Art and science look to explain the world from different perspectives; the artist and the scientist speak different dialects within the same language, but it is becoming increasingly apparent that when the artist and the scientist work together, they can tell a much richer story. Visual art in particular offers a shared language through which to describe what the artist and the scientist see.

Ideally, a mural is just the start.

Pictured: Last year, a graffiti-style painting “appeared” one night on a wall in the basement courtesy of Alex Anees; that image (pictured right) offered an artist’s impression of raw scientific data.

“It started out with a sort of geometric quality, but grew to be more abstract and fluid,” said Anees. “To me it is a visual interpretation of how scientists uncover the truth from within chaos.”

Art: Alex Anees. Photo source: SBQMI.

“Mural making is exciting to me because the art itself emerges in a public place for public viewing. It puts voice to a visual narrative and in the best of circumstances makes meaning of something significant for those involved in creating the piece,” said Leon. “This process was entirely collaborative: Professor Christopher Gutiérrez provided scientific illustrations, ideas, and dialogued with me throughout the process. Professor Ziliang Ye, Kassandra Darbel, and Amy Qu sent ideas, images, equations, and really specific feedback my way throughout the process. Dr. James Day led the dialogue around this collaboration, actively ensuring we crafted a narrative that best reflected our early ideation phase, the needs of the group and ultimately the institute. He didn't miss a beat. Emily Wight made sure we stayed on task and track. This was a truly wonderful collaborative process.”

Following the installation of the mural, Leon relocated to Los Angeles, where she is now working for SPARC, an organization that creates public art in public spaces to tell stories that represent all voices, particularly those of marginalized communities. They create works of art that employ similar processes to those used in the SBQMI mural, mixing traditional modes of painting and digital art, printing on vinyl or canvas. For more information on Gina Leon and her work, visit

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