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Math Art for Kids

Lenny’s Corvette Quest, 2018, Colored pencil and graphite on paper
Lenny’s Corvette Quest, 2018, Colored pencil and graphite on paper

For this post I thought I’d talk about a drawing I’m currently working on and discuss how it has evolved over time. My son is 8 years old and one part of his math homework is completing word problems. These are math problems where the main information is presented in narrative form. A fairly simple example is below (from Wikipedia):

The mathematical problem in mathematical notation:

Solve for J:

J = A − 20

J + 5 = (A + 5) / 2

The same problem might be presented in the form of a word problem as follows:

John is twenty years younger than Amy, and in five years’ time he will be half her age. What is John’s age now?

The answer to the word problem is that John is 15 years old, while the answer to the mathematical problem is that J equals 15 (and A equals 35).

These problems can often get very complicated, like soap operas with no easy sense of who is related to whom. They often mix moral lessons with the math lessons as well, which was intriguing to me – the idea of math as a moral compass. Taken as stories, these read like strange tales of complex monetary interactions and Rube Goldberg like quests for a single answer.

For me, the idea of learning morality through mathematics is compelling. How we learn about the way the world works, how people relate to each other, is most malleable when we’re young. I started to think about this idea as related to others ways of teaching and expressing morality, such as those inherent in religion, charitable donation, the concept of self-interest, societal norms and rules, the stories politicians tell to convey policy, etc. It seemed like an exciting space to explore in a drawing.

In my work, I have also long been investigating social class mobility cycles and the related lure of the lottery as a means of breaking this pattern – the mirage of wealth. When I was younger, I worked in a hospital kitchen where almost everyone played the lottery each day, and my own family thought of the lottery as an exciting (and even realistic) chance to reach our dreams of wealth. I even invented a computer program when I was young to try to pick winning numbers. What was troubling to me as I got older was how much money we all spent each day playing the lottery. It seemed like a small amount per ticket, maybe just a dollar or two, but over time, I, and everyone I knew, lost more than we ever won. We would win just enough to maintain the sense that the truly big win was possible. The lottery’s system of rewards is intentionally organized like that in order to tap into our belief that if something hasn’t happened in a while, it’s bound to happen soon. This is called the Gambler’s Fallacy, and that, along with the risk and reward concepts such as operant conditioning, availability heuristics, and our own fallible memories, cause us to keep playing. But the lottery is random, and we have no better chance of winning any time we play. In this way, the lottery can be seen as a societal means to perpetuate social class stagnation or even decline. We’re significantly more likely to be struck by lightning that we are to win Mega Millions, yet we can’t help but to play again and again.

To investigate this idea, I began by experimenting with cyclical word problems. I decided to attempt to tell the story of someone who wanted to own something big, like a car, because it was advertised as a status symbol and would improve their lives, and how that intense desire would lead that person to play the lottery, especially if their salary was well below what it needed to be in order to afford the car. I used the average salary of a hospital kitchen worker as a baseline, and a Corvette as the prized car. My first test of the story went like this:

Old George had a Ford Escort worth X according to Kelly Blue book. He wanted to buy the Ford Corvette of his dreams that cost X. At the FORD dealership, the salesman told Old George that he could get X to trade in his Escort, and that his monthly payments for the Corvette would be X for X years. So, Old George needed X for his Corvette. Old George sold everything in his home including the home itself, and moved in with his daughter and her baby boy. Old George bought the Corvette of his dreams. Old George died 15 years later and bequeathed the Corvette to his grandson, Baby Abe. Baby Abe sold the Old broken Corvette so that he could get to his job at X. He bought a New Ford Escort. But Baby Abe really wanted a brand new Corvette. How many years will it take for Baby Abe to get the brand New Corvette of his dreams? And how long before his New grandson sells it?

I was looking for names to use and how best to convey that this endless cycle would be intergenerational. It also was coming out kind of funny and ludicrous, almost tragically comic. I liked that the humor could be the vehicle for my political commentary and observation. So, I made many more revisions and attempts to get the story “right”. The final version I arrived at is below:

As I started the physical drawing, I wanted to relate the drawing style to the narrative in general, and more specifically, to the ways in which lotteries advertise through their visuals of bright, contrasting, alternating colors, zig zags, logos, and exclamation points. I also wanted the feeling of something gradually transforming in an uncontrollable or unpredictable way. So, I started to make a striped background in order to achieve this, and as I continued to draw the stripes, the alternating bars began to deviate from my measured starting point. As the stripes progressed down the paper, they morphed from evenly spaced bands into very irregular ones. The pattern was degenerating. I also wanted some of the visual modes to repeat, creating a visual language through repetition that could communicate something of the concept, even if the words weren’t read by the viewer. Could they feel the story through the aesthetics? It became an exercise in how to translate an observation I had (and had actually experienced) about how stagnant social class is pervasive and institutional, into a math problem, and then back into a word story.

The exciting thing to me is that art is the place where these ideas can intersect and be explored. Art can hybridize diverse ways of thinking via its graphic language. For me, personal experience leads to social awareness and political action through the process of drawing. I haven’t finished this drawing yet, but when I do I think I’ll start another. And then maybe another.

Other works dealing with the lottery and/or cyclical experiences:

Big Winner, fake lottery ticket with winning numbers, to scale, 2012


Robin Hood, Acrylic and Gesso on Board, 2012, 44 X 28 X 3 inches

Recurrence, 2013, colored pencil and graphite on paper, 68 X 58 inches