Emily Lynch Victory ’06 is a rising star in the art world, but make no mistake: math is her first love. This is evident in her stunning large-scale paintings, each of which requires hours upon hours of meticulous work in her Delano, Minn., studio. Her high-impact pieces explore mathematical concepts from probability to number bases, and in the process, they offer an explosion of mind-bending pattern.
It’s all about the math
Victory is uniquely situated to explore the pairing of math and art. After majoring in math at Luther, she taught in the classroom for a couple of years, but it left her too little creative time. She returned to school and earned a fine arts degree from the University of Minnesota in 2012, after which she began work with a math textbook publisher while continuing a studio practice.
Victory’s position with Math Teachers Press has her teaching educators and administrators how the company’s curriculum works. “I love my job, because it’s hands-on math, which is what my life is about right now,” she says. “I get to meet math people and talk math concepts. And the textbooks, which are for students who really struggle, are about visualizing math, which feeds into my artwork perfectly.”
Victory admits she’s obsessed with numbers and patterns. That’s how she navigates life, taking note of dates that are prime or calculating half birthdays as a matter of course. Rather than as an artist, she sees herself as a problem-solver. Her practice, she says, is “mainly about the math, and then the art is how I do that math.” In her sketchbooks, she doesn’t doodle as often as she solves equations or lists numbers that go on for pages.
Math’s personal side
Grids, columns, squares, circles, and rectangles feature prominently in Victory’s work, especially in repetition, and in this way her paintings make a person think about mass and quantity. Sometimes they call to mind high-rise apartment buildings in Hong Kong, those monoliths of identical windows and balconies, so expansive that they resemble sheets of wrapping paper more than places where people actually live. And that gets you thinking about anonymity.
A closer look at her work, however, and you notice the ragged edges of the rectangles, where the paint has strayed, or the square that’s been rendered a bit lopsided. The lines that aren’t quite parallel. The individual brushstrokes. And these details are the opposite of anonymity—they’re distinctly handmade and highly individual marks that, just like a towel slung over the railing of a Hong Kong balcony, suggest life behind the clinical façade.
This take on her work delights Victory: “I want there to be surprises up close. That is exactly what I was trying to do. To most people, math is like a machine—it’s so technical, with numbers and symbols—but it’s really not if you’re just trying to learn the concepts. Math can be drawings, and it can be very personal, how you understand it.”
Choice of materials is another way that Victory tries to make math approachable. While her paintings’ high gloss and techy look lend them an expensive feel, her tools of the trade are acrylic paint and a Sharpie. Sometimes she paints on pegboard or a painter’s drop cloth, the kind you can buy for a few bucks at any hardware store. One of her paintings uses tabs of drywall tape.
“Usually math is kind of high-end or exclusive,” she says, “but these materials are not, and I love that. My upbringing is more rural Minnesota, and these are the things I’m used to. I just feel more comfortable with these materials, plus I love the contrast of these high-end concepts, which are regarded as difficult or elite, on these kinds of rough and tough backgrounds.”
Math meets art meets music
Through her art, Victory examines everything from sectorials to rotational symmetry, but some of her recent work has had her collaborating with Zach Zubow ’06, assistant professor and director of music at Queens University of Charlotte in Charlotte, N.C.
Prior to her partnership with Zubow, Victory had translated some of her paintings into short piano pieces, interpreting marks on the canvas as notes and spaces. But she knew that music had more to offer her work, so she reached out to her former classmate, who had already been using numeric structures in his compositions.
Zubow and Victory devised a series of three paintings and musical pieces that used three different mathematical bases: base 3, base 8, and base 16. In one song, the notes were in base 3, the dynamics in base 8, and the rhythm in base 16. They switched those three elements for the next piece, and they switched them again for the third. “In each piece, the music matches the math that’s happening in the painting,” Victory says. “You could potentially follow the music within the artwork.”
Zubow and Victory’s pieces were exhibited and performed on piano at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis last January. The duo also won a $5,000 grant for their work.
They partnered again last fall, after Victory secured another $5,000 grant and a spot at the eighth annual ArtPrize international art competition in Grand Rapids, Mich. Again, they devised a series of three pieces, but this time they used number systems that were site-specific, including the zip code for Grand Rapids and the dimensions of their exhibition space. And because a live performance wasn’t feasible, they embedded speakers—which were triggered by motion detectors to play when someone approached—into Victory’s paintings themselves. This setup required Zubow to learn several new skill sets. “Essentially, I had to teach myself the mathematical processes, programming languages, networking, hardware components, and a bit of electrical engineering to incorporate car stereo speakers in order to successfully pull off this project,” he says.
But the logistical headache was worth it, according to Victory. “It was the coolest. It made perfect sense. It was almost as if the math itself was talking.”
Victory will return to Luther in the spring semester to conduct studio visits and talk with students in the Art Department. In addition to her studio practice, her work with Math Teachers Press, and mothering two young boys, she founded River Street Paint House in Delano, Minn., last January.
Learn more about the community-centered creative space at facebook.com/RiverStreetPaintHouse.
See more of Victory’s artwork and listen to her collaboration with Zubow at mnartists.org/emvictory.
Watch an award-winning PBS short film about Victory at pbs.org/filmfestival/2016/artist-day-jobs-emily-lynch-victory-paintermath-trainer/.