Between Art & Science: The Wonder of Paper, Matt Shlian

Working at the intersection of art and science, Matt Shlian describes himself as a “paper engineer.” Shlian creates mesmerizing paper sculptures by merging intricate hand-folding techniques with digital mapping. His use of both geometry and paper has defined his craft, with drawings, prints and sculpture that are unique in their manifestation.

Ara 530 Trace Italian, 2021, Matt Shlian


Shlian works out of his design studio based in Ann Arbor. He is involved in a U.S. National Science Foundation funded research campaign at the University of Michigan, working alongside engineers to discover if origami can provide a foundation for three-dimensional nanotechnology. Shlian has extensively exhibited work across the United States and his paper compositions are held in collections that include the Art Institute of Chicago and the Drawing Center. He has received commissions by brands as varied as Apple, Facebook, Supreme, and Sesame Street.

Ara 314 (Such a Thirst I Had) detail, 2017, Matt Shlian


Shlian is not interested in labeling and defining art. Rather, he suggests most artists work in a fluid not linear path and are omnivorous in terms of inspiration. He is wary of artists that only look to people working in similar fields for inspiration. According to Shlian the best work is being done in the fringes, in the nebulous space between disciplines between science and art, between architecture and engineering, between science and math. We talked to Shlian about his connection to Islamic art, searching for the why and how the sacred art of Islamic geometry has influenced his work and creative practice.

Ara 543 Wax Simulacra / Capablanca, 2021, Matt Shlian


Islamic geometric pattern mixes elements of maths, art and history. How has geometry in Islamic art influenced your work and process? When did you discover a connection with Islamic art?

In 2007, while teaching a design course at Washtenaw Community College, a colleague gave me a book on the Topkapi Scrolls. I spent hours looking at the intricate forms and patterns. I remember the semester ending and purposely avoiding her, because I did not want to give the book back. It was an older book, a show cata- logue long out of print and before returning it I made copies of many pages—mostly Muqarnas patterns that were revelations to me. Until this moment, I had only a casual interest and little familiarity with the arc and substance of Islamic art. My introduction through the Topkapi Scrolls led me to the forms and designs that have been so crucial and influential in my artistic practice. I let those patterns simmer in my mind and sketch-books for two years before embarking on my “Ara” series in 2010.

Ara 301, 2017, Matt Shlian


Apophenia was one of the first pieces I made that merged quasicrystal formation patterns with Islamic design. The title Apophenia means seeing patterns where none exist. The term is used to describe the human tendency to perceive patterns in random data. This piece experiments with the idea of disrupting repeating patterns. As the viewer’s eye recognizes a repeat it dissolves and is consumed by another form.

Apophenia (for Shinola) 2013, Matt Shlian


The idea for Apophenia emerged from my collaboration with Sharon Glotzer’s Group at the University of Michigan. Her lab in the Macro Molecular Science and Engineering department studies how nanoscale systems of building blocks self-assemble and aims to discover how to control the assembly process to engineer new materials. By mimicking biological assembly, Glotzer’s lab explores ways to nano-engineer materials that are self-assembling, self-sensing, and self-regulating.

Through a complex process, the researchers are able to take virtual slices from these self- assembled clusters. These extracted slices reveal a five-sided aperiodic repeating pattern similar to Islamic tile design. The researcher can then tilt the cluster along a different axis,

take another slice and a whole new pattern is revealed. Apophenia represents my attempt to merge these points of view, the invisible micro-structures with the known ‘macro’ structures in architecture and ornamentation. It also is an attempt to represent a three dimensional form on a single plane.

Ara 150, 2015, Matt Shlian


Science and Islam are intimately linked. Islamic scientific achievements encompassed a wide range of subject areas, especially mathematics. Your work relates to science and the universe as you use paper as a tool to illustrate science principles. Why do you think there is a relationship between the spiritual, visual arts and science? I do see a clear link, but more than that, I don't see a divide. What I do in the studio and what happens in the lab are extensions of the same thought pattern. Both are driven by curiosity, out of a question of "what if?" Searching for meaning and searching for form are similar questions. The older I get, the less I understand the labeling of things. Why does spirituality sit in this container while art is over here and science is separate? What is gained by saying this is "Art" and this is "Science"? When I was in high school we’d study math for 45 minutes and science for 45 minutes, and English, but why did we draw these lines? It’s the same thing, really. It wasn’t that long ago that we were dissecting bodies and drawing them at the same time.

Ara 511 All possibilities, 2021, Matt Shlian


Does your work reflect similar principles to the Islamic art tradition? in Six Memos for the Next Millennium Italo Calvino writes: “I wanted to tell you my fondness for exactitude, for geometrical forms, for symmetries, for numerical series, for all that is combinatory, for proportions; I wanted to explain the things I had written of my fidelity to the idea of limits, of measure… But perhaps it is precisely this idea of forms that evokes the idea of the endless.”

In my work there is an unfolding of form that happens. Often I start without a clear goal in mind, working within a series of limitations. For example on one piece I'll only use curved folds, or make my lines this length or that angle etc. Other times I begin with an idea for movement and try to achieve that shape or form somehow. Along the way something usually goes wrong and a mistake becomes more interesting than the original idea and I work with that instead. I'd say my starting point is curiosity; I have to make the work in order to understand it. If I can completely visualize my final result I have no reason to make it - I need to be surprised.

Salt Loom Assembly, 2017, Matt Shlian


When working with paper there is a tactile knowledge, a dialog with the material. You know which way the paper should move and it is this muscle memory that allows the forms to take shape. The paper wants to behave in certain ways and the more I can move with it instead of against it the better for all involved- myself, the viewer, the material. As I am working I have to pay strict attention to many things: the materiality of the paper, the balance of shapes, the proportions of form, when the repeat or reflection happens and how it breaks… all of this is done without words.

I think Artists working in traditional Islamic Arts work in a similar manner. What can be created with just a compass and straightedge? What patterns can emerge from this set of limitations? What will evolve or grow? In this process there is a sense of mystery, wonder and creation.

For more information check out

The views of the artists, authors and writers who contribute to Bayt Al Fann do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Bayt Al Fann, its owners, employees and affiliates.