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Work of U. of I. 'Leonardo' to be highlighted in Chicago Da Vinci exhibition

Melissa Mitchell, Arts Editor


Donna Cox
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Donna Cox, a professor of art and design at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and senior research scientist at the university’s National Center for Supercomputing Applications, was invited by the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago to contribute to “Leonardo da Vinci: Man, Inventor, Genius.”

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Scientific visualization artist-wizard Donna Cox is among a select, eclectic group of visionaries from a broad range of disciplines whose work will be spotlighted in a major new exhibition opening this week at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry.

Cox, a professor of art and design at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and senior research scientist at the university’s National Center for Supercomputing Applications, was invited by the museum to contribute to “Leonardo da Vinci: Man, Inventor, Genius.”

The exhibition will be on view April 14 and runs through Sept. 4.

Designed to reveal the depth of Leonardo’s inventive spirit, the exhibition showcases the ways in which his talent extended beyond purely artistic endeavors into the fields of science and engineering. It also emphasizes how that genius lives on today through “modern-day Leonardos,” whose own work inspires new generations of dreamers, creators and inventors.

Cox is among the “modern-day Leonardos” identified by the museum and invited to contribute models, prototypes, illustrations and other concept materials to serve as a sampler of the work being explored by some of the most inventive, creative minds of our time. Members of the group hail from fields as diverse as architecture, art, music, computer science, engineering and physics, medicine and music.

Cox’s part of show will consist of a kiosk with a large display screen featuring a 13-15 minute audio-video loop that stitches together several examples of the visualization work created during the past 14 years by Cox and other members of NCSA’s “Renaissance Team.”

visualized study of inbound traffic
Click photo to enlarge
Courtesy NCSA
This image is a visualization study of inbound traffic measured in billions of bytes on the NSFNET T1 backbone for the month of September 1991. The traffic volume range is depicted from purple (0 byes) to white (100 billion bytes). It represents data collected by Merit Network Inc.

Team members include Alex Betts, Jeff Carpenter, Matthew Hall, Lorne Leonard, Stuart Levy and Robert Patterson. The museum presentation is edited by Carpenter, with music produced by Patterson.

The content of the piece “is all data-driven, scientific visualizations, aesthetically created,” said Cox, who added that her primary contribution to the team’s work is to determine color and the style or visual treatment of the rendering of the data.

Ever since she “crossed over” from the world of studio art to supercomputers in the mid-1980s, trading paint and canvas for a mouse and virtual-reality goggles, Cox has picked up numerous awards for her work, which is intended primarily to help scientists visualize – and more easily interpret – complex data. She also has created visualizations for the IMAX film “Cosmic Voyage,” which was nominated for an Academy Award; for documentaries broadcast on the Discovery Channel and on PBS, as part of its “NOVA” series; and for planetarium dome shows.

Cox’s most recent work includes serving as NCSA producer and art director for “Black Holes: The Other Side of Infinity,” a planetarium show that opened in February at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and will travel to other venues around the world. The show was produced in association with a “NOVA” series about black holes, “Monster of the Milky Way,” scheduled for broadcast this fall on PBS stations.

“It’s my passion to bring this esoteric science to large audiences in meaningful and beautiful ways,” Cox said. “It’s a pleasure working with other artists and scientists.”

The video sampler in the “Leonardo” show features visualizations of two colliding galaxies and their merger in intergalactic space, the birth and death of a first star in the universe and its transition into a supernova, and a fast-paced segment simulating flight to the center of the Milky Way and into a black hole.

Another segment illustrates for museum visitors just how the team of artists and scientists work together and actually do what they do.

It includes footage and narration featuring Cox, Patterson, Stuart and their avatars (animated characters that represent team members in the U. of I.’s virtual-reality space known as the CAVE), and “shows us flying around as avatars and sharing flight paths in virtual reality,” Cox said.

“The Leonardo theme is a lot about flight,” Cox said, explaining her rationale for choosing to incorporate these particular visualizations.

To advance the metaphor in a slightly different direction, Cox also incorporated a classic 3-D model representing the emergence of the Internet in 1990-92, with network “flight paths” criss-crossing a map of the United States to indicate connections at research institutions, national labs and client networks.

“This image has become an icon for the Internet,” Cox said. Although it was created back in 1991, “it still gets about two hits a week on the NCSA Web site and is constantly requested for print publications.”

Some of the other Modern-day Leonardos featured in the exhibition also have U. of I. connections, including former faculty member Stephen Wolfram, developer of Mathematica software and author of “A New Kind of Science; aerospace engineer James DeLaurier, known for his research and development of the ornithopter, an aircraft with bird-like, mechanical flapping wings; and Zack Kaplan and Keith Schact, founders of Inventables, a company that provides a subscription service of new technologies to Fortune 500 companies.

“I was impressed with the other contributors,” Cox said. Danny Hillis (inventor, engineer and computer scientist) … I’ve known he’s brilliant for a long time. So to be there with people like him, Wolfram and (multimedia artist) Laurie Anderson, it’s an honor.”