I am a mathematical artist. I think of myself as something of a ‘social nomad’ as well as an ‘intellectual nomad’; I am constantly making the search for new and interesting mathematical formulae to use in my artwork, and I think my life experiences have contributed to my approach to my art.
I was born in 1949, in Tully, in far north Queensland, Australia, with the name Lewin Blazevich (I later changed this by deed poll to Lewis Blayse). I was taken from my mother as a babe in arms in 1949 by a Salvation Army officer on the rail motor from the small cane town of Tully and taken to the Townsville Receiving Depot (run by the Queensland government). In one of life’s strange twists, when I was doing a hunger strike in Brisbane’s King George Square in 1976, demanding a government enquiry into unemployment benefits in Australia, the same Salvation Army officer who took me from my parents was one of the myriad of people who came up to talk to me. (As an aside, the politician Mal Colston took my petition of more than 15,000 names to the Fraser government and the ensuring enquiry resulted in a change in the culture of Centrelink’s precursor’s staff).
I went in and out of the Townsville Receiving Depot several times. I was then taken to the Rockhampton Receiving Depot (a few 100 kilometres from my home). Later, I was transferred to the Anglican-run St George’s Infants Home, in Rockhampton, Queensland, Australia.
After a few months of starting school at my family’s new home in Brisbane, I was taken again and transferred to a foster family at Darra, in Brisbane. Problems there resulted in my transfer to the Diamantina Receiving Depot in Brisbane, which was a crisis care centre. During this time, I was frequently taken out for weekends and on school holidays by prominent members of the Brisbane community, including (in another strange coincidence, since I later worked for him as his electoral assistant), the parents of former Brisbane Lord Mayor, Clem Jones (who was, when I was staying with his parents, off on a study tour to California to learn about local government), the State Governor, the State Health Minister, the curator of the Brisbane Botanical Gardens (during which time I gained a love of gardening), prominent members of the clergy, leading businesspeople, and others. This time no doubt had an influence on my approach to life and art, as I stayed with people across a wide spectrum of religions and professions.
After this period, I was placed in the Indooroopilly Boys Home, run by the Salvation Army. It was then that I saw the worst abuses, as detailed in my interview with Four Corners, and after I had organised a failed and brutally-punished escape attempt for myself and the other boys, on my departure at the age of 12 and my return to my family, I promised the boys that I would eventually get something done about the home. I hardly knew the family I was returned to. My brothers had grown up and were about to leave home. I repressed the memory of the Homes (which I learned later was because of the traumatic nature of the memories), settled into life, and decided to become a ‘hot shot’ scientist. Later, as I explain in my political blog, when the memory of the Homes began to resurface in my early 20s, I returned to the activism of my childhood, spending much of my adult life trying to get something done about child abuse in children’s homes.
The strangeness and diversity of my early experiences of my childhood were mirrored in my adult life. Following my departure from my PhD studies at the University of Queensland, I worked throughout my adult life in a series of short-lived jobs including PR consultant, community development officer, private tutor, university tutor, factory worker, political staff member, clerical workers, railway fettler, general labourer, farmer, manager of the Queensland Blind Foundation, and high school teacher. The only consistency has been my art. During all the chaos of my childhood in the Homes, I was allowed no personal possessions. This made retaining a sense of identity very difficult as I was moved from place to place. I discovered early, however, that I did have a possession – my intellect. I realised that my head always travelled with me. Correspondingly, throughout my nomadic life as an adult, I have taken my mathematical art with me, whatever else I have been doing. I began doing my mathematical art in the early 1970s, when I came across the newly-discovered mathematics of cellular automata, known for what has since been called the ‘Life Game’.
Evolution of My Techniques – Past and Future
The Life Game was done by most people using computer; I did it by hand on graph paper. This was tedious and painstaking work, but I think my teenage years as a marathon runner (including an inspiring time training under Percy Cerutty) helped give me the patience and the discipline to stay with it. The first artwork I produced using mathematical functions were done on a (then very expensive!) desktop calculator, which only had the basic functions (plus, minus, multiply, divide and square root) and trigonometric tables, which was also very tedious and time-consuming. As technology has evolved, I have been able to do more and more with my artwork. My work with computers began with a 32K memory Dick Smith computer. At that time, the early dot matrix printers required that I had to write a program in order to print my artwork, since they could only, at that time, print words. I have upgraded my computer over the years, and am now looking forward to the time when computer development changes from advances in memory to advances in speed, because it still takes a very long time (there are literally billions of calculations involved) to make one picture. Until such advances, I will be waiting to be able to make a movie or video version of my artwork – currently, the mathematics I use makes this possible, but won’t be possible as a matter of practicality until I have access to a very much faster computer than what I own at present. I am looking forward to this time. I am also looking forward to a time in the not-too-distant future when I hope to begin turning my artwork into 3-D form (sculptures) through the use of a 3D printer. The quality of 3D printers is rising, and the cost steadily falling, so it shouldn’t be long until the quality is high enough and the price low enough for my requirements.
Some artists seek inspiration from nature, some from people, some from the built environment, etc. My inspiration comes from the intellectual endeavours of people working across a very broad range of fields in which mathematics plays a big role. These fields include the various branches of mathematics itself (including chaos mathematics, which interests me greatly), meteorology, economics, engineering, statistics, various branches of science, etc. I move from field to field in my ongoing search for new and interesting formulae to incorporate into my artwork. I first learned to look beyond my own training (in biochemistry) to learn from other disciplines when I was President of the Postgraduate Students’ Association at the University of Queensland, when one of the great pleasures of the role was talking to postgraduate students from a very wide range of disciplines about their research interests. Today, I enjoy living in a world in which it is possible for even a person of limited resources but with an Internet connection, living in the Australian bush, to be able to read about the latest research coming out of universities all over the world.