Clarissa Grandi is a UK-based geometric artist, author and teacher of mathematics, with an interest in traditional decorative art forms, including Islamic geometric pattern.Clarissa is strongly influenced by natural form. She enjoys exploring the interplay between rigid, regular, human-made geometry and nature’s more organic and chaotic geometries and symmetries. The organic feel of her paintings is enhanced by her use of loose, freehand outlining and nature-inspired colour palettes.
We talk to Clarissa about the connection between Islamic geometry and maths and how nature is an influence throughout her work.
You are an author and teacher of mathematics, with an interest in traditional decorative art forms, including Islamic geometric pattern. Can you tell us more about your journey as an artist?
Art and maths were my favourite subjects at school, and when I later decided to teach secondary mathematics, I was lucky enough to train at a school which ran a mathematical art and origami club. That was my first introduction to geometric art, and I was fascinated.
I created a bank of mathematical art resources to use with my students, and in 2016 I created my website Artfulmaths.com as a platform from which to freely share these resources with other teachers. However, although I was using art as a teaching tool to enrich my students’ school mathematics experience, I hadn’t yet started making art for myself.
Then, in 2018, I took Samira Mian’s Udemy course, closely followed by one of her London workshops, and it was here that I experimented with watercolours for the first time. I had found both my medium and my muse: Islamic geometric pattern. I would say that my personal artistic journey took off from there.
In 2019 I met another of my teachers, Daniel Docherty. At his wonderful Sacred Art of Geometry studios in the heart of Sussex, I was introduced to many more geometric art traditions, including the geometry of the Gothic period (which was, of course, heavily influenced by architectural techniques from the Islamic lands). Around this time, both Daniel and Samira encouraged me to set up an Instagram account. I remember agonising over whether I should call myself an artist in my bio, and I was so nervous of sharing my artwork. But Instagram has become an integral part of my creative journey, introducing me to inspiring artists from many different traditions, and providing me with a supportive audience and a community of likeminded souls that otherwise I would never have encountered.
And it was on Instagram that I discovered hashtag challenges.
The first I completed was #InktoberAlhambra in 2019, where I took on the challenge of working through Manuel Martinez Vela’s wonderful book, The Alhambra with Ruler and Compass. From then on hashtag challenges became my thing. I really enjoy the narrowing of focus that a hashtag challenge entails – I suppose it’s equivalent to having a design brief. And of course, the accountability of having to post daily is the perfect motivator for a deadline-driven artist! My work always develops in leaps and bounds during these intensive months of artmaking, mainly because I focus in on exploring a specific subject or technique. That restriction is an important one: it reduces the amount of decision making required when producing a new piece of art daily.
When we entered lockdown in 2020 I organised some hashtag challenges on Twitter. Soon a small band of creative math teachers were producing the most glorious geometric art in response to challenges such as #Maydala, #Junebugchallenge, #GeometricJuly and #ArtfulAugust. It was a wonderful summer of art! And that August I taught my first online course: Introduction to Geometric Art. I now teach several courses regularly throughout the year.
More recently I have felt a call to reconnect with nature. I've taken courses with both Sacred Art of Geometry studios and with Nicola Coe Art, making inks, pigments, and art tools from natural foraged finds. This desire to reconnect is evident in my more recent works where I incorporate natural botanical forms with geometry.
Your geometric paintings have been exhibited in Mathematical Art exhibitions in the US, including the 2019 ‘Women making with Mathematics’ exhibition at the Dana Hall Gallery, Massachusetts. What has been the most memorable moment exhibiting?
To be honest, one of my most abiding memories is the huge learning curve I encountered in preparing my work for an exhibition abroad. This was all completely new to me: mounting and framing my paintings, researching the best packaging methods, learning about insurance, and negotiating customs forms. But, to my great relief, the paintings arrived safely! I could not attend the exhibitions in person, but I saw photographs and write-ups on Twitter, and it was so wonderful to see my artwork displayed alongside a group of mathematical artists that I greatly admire, including Samira Mian, my first teacher
Congratulations on winning the NESTA Classroom Changemaker 2020 award in recognition of your contribution to creativity in mathematics education in the UK. How has Islamic art changed your teaching practice?
Thank you. I believe that both creating and teaching Islamic geometric art has impacted my practice in many ways. I love being able to share with my students the ‘back story’ of some of the mathematics I teach. For example, being able to bring to life the purpose of geometric constructions, their history and cultural and architectural significance; and to show students how these clever and elegant techniques can be used to produce beautiful patterns, enriches my practice and their learning. In addition, teaching geometric art online, under a visualiser, has certainly developed the clarity of my instructional technique.
Do you think education and training is important to the development of an artist?
I firmly believe that geometric art making is accessible to everyone, including complete beginners. Geometric construction is a step-by-step, algorithmic process, which means that anyone who follows the steps carefully and accurately can create a beautifully proportioned, harmonious pattern. However, it is in decorating the pattern that individual creativity comes into play. And if a beginner artist wishes to explore and develop different techniques and styles, then that does, I think, entail finding a teacher, or engaging in training of some description. However, this doesn’t need to be training in the formal, traditional sense. These days we are incredibly lucky to be able to access a multitude of high-quality tuition online, from video courses or live Zoom lessons to the wealth of tutorials on YouTube. I am currently working through online courses on copperplate calligraphy, mandala drawing and abstract watercolour painting, all from the comfort of my home. Furthermore, I would say that following artist accounts on Instagram is a form of education in itself that can inspire us to try new ideas and techniques.
Do you think the preservation of traditional arts is important for the future?
Absolutely! These are techniques that have been honed and passed down for generations, and which have brought beauty into innumerable lives before ours. They must be preserved so that future generations can benefit from being able to learn and reproduce these timeless techniques themselves, or simply experience the beauty brought about by the skilled hands of others.
Your work is strongly influenced by natural form, can you tell us more about this?
Nature is a fantastic source of pattern inspiration. ‘Li’ is a Chinese concept for the unregimented, ever-changing pattern found in the natural world, whose organising principle is essentially mathematical. In the past I have often used these patterns to infill my geometric forms: Islamic rosettes with peacock feather or leaf vein infills, or a gothic rose window with dragonfly-wing stained glass.
Recently, like many, I have noticed a feeling of disconnect with the natural world. It's all too easy to get caught up in the hectic pace of modern life, never properly connecting with the earth beneath our feet. Perhaps it was the enforced slowing brought about by the pandemic that stirred the need in me to reconnect. I have started taking the time to really ‘see’ the world around me again, drinking in the beauty of the forms and colours of nature on my daily countryside commute. Last summer I became fascinated by the elegant shapes and forms of the wild grass seed heads in the hedgerows. It was then that I became inspired to weave these elegant, chaotic forms alongside the mathematical perfection of human-constructed geometric form. It seemed the perfect marriage, a dance between the two. I love how gentle elegance of line and form in the natural world contrasts and interacts with the proportional harmonies inherent in geometric structures. There's something about the interplay of symmetry and asymmetry, order and chaos, rigidity and freedom that hints at a truth held just out of reach.
What does the future of Islamic art look like to you?
I would say the future of Islamic art is certainly bright. With the proliferation of high-quality online tuition available from, for example, Art of Islamic Pattern, The Princes School of Traditional Arts, Samira Mian and Esra Alhamal, amongst others, more and more of us are being introduced to the wonder of this tradition. My breath is often taken away by the sheer beauty of the artwork that graces my Instagram feed. I see artists experimenting all the time with different ways to render and decorate their geometric compositions, with different substrates and mediums, forever pushing boundaries and forging new paths. It is such a blessing to be a tiny part of this exciting and dynamic community of creatives.
For more information check out https://www.instagram.com/clarissagrandi.art
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