It is no surprise to find a lot of science embedded in the paintings of an artist who is also an astrophysicist - in the rowing art of Soren Meibom, you will have to look very closely, but when you do, you will find nothing short of a scientific treatise on the sport.
In 2019, Meibom, an astrophysicist who worked at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, was asked to provide paintings for a fundraiser celebrating the participation of Olympic rowers from his native Denmark in the Head Of The Charles. Before picking up his brush, Meibom dove headlong into the science of the sport to inform his paintings.
While at first glance they may appear simply as a painting of some aspect of rowing, upon inspection each of Meibom's paintings is revealed to be a deep dive into the science, mechanics, physics, history, and imagery of the depicted subject, rendered in beautiful and accurate lines, colors, and hues.
Take his depiction of an oar blade, titled Blade and modeled from a C2 Fat blade, in which you will find at least three historic blade shapes; accurate diagrams of the path of an oar blade through the water; force diagrams of the oar against the pin; equations for the moment of force at the oarlock; depictions of 'slip' and 'back-watering' at the finish; mathematical expressions of lift, drag, and blade face pressure; depictions of fiberglass molecules and cellulose molecules (the main constituent of wood); graphs depicting the evolving understanding of the science of propulsion, and more.
But it's a cool painting as well, an example of what Meibom calls Sci-Art.
To assist in the discovery and understanding of the disparate elements in the paintings, Meibom created skeleton key Content Guides for each of the paintings, which you can view here.
'It's very important to me that it is first and foremost visual art," Meibom said. "If someone doesn't care about rowing, they should be able to look at it and enjoy the colors, the contrast between darks and lights, the shapes, everything that you can enjoy about a piece of visual art. It should be an aesthetically interesting, beautiful piece of art; that is my primary goal.
"But I have always found that science has artistic value as well. All these years as a scientist, when I have looked at my own results, data and graphs and curves, I have been fascinated by the fact that these things are telling you something about what we all experience and are surrounded by every day in the natural world.
"Not everyone thinks about the motion of the blade through the water; with the reference frame of the oar from above, it makes just a beautiful pattern. But beyond that, the fact that the scientific understanding of what is going on is now guiding the shape of the oar blades, whereas in the old days they understood that they had to have something flat and rectangular into the water, is very interesting and to me beautiful.
"So the challenge to myself, the experiment if you will, is to create interesting, beautiful visual art and fold and blend in the science to create an additional dimension that can be explored an enjoyed by people who are interested."
Meibom reached out to rowing community members to lend expertise and graphical elements; for M1, a painting of a single sculler, Meibom reached out to rowing scientist Dr. Valery Kleshnev to request data and graphical elements pertaining to single sculling. Per Meibom's description of the painting on his Web site, "The rower and his shell are floating on a sea of scientific graphs, expressions, imagery, diagrams, and data, all pertaining specifically to the physiological, biomechanical, and physical aspects of the single scull discipline, as well as the competitive history of Olympic single scull finals for men and women."
"I asked Valery for information specifically for single scullers, and he sent me several of his reports," Meibom said. "And everything in that picture has to do with the single scull discipline; the oxygen uptake, the speed of the boat over the distance of the race, the acceleration curve of the shell in the stroke cycle.
"In the body of the rower I have cross-sectional imaging of fast twitch and slow twitch muscle fibers; rowers have a very high percentage of slow twitch fibers because they are so important for endurance, but you still need fast twitch to get up to speed fast at the beginning and end of the race. The formula for hemoglobin and the structure of the protein are there as well; these factors are important to the rower's performance and interesting to me, and I wanted to represent these in the rower's muscles."
Meibom said his painting of a pair includes elements showing the high demand for teamwork in this boat type.
"What I found fascinating about that discipline was the extreme demand for synchronization of both timing and force, so a lot of the curves in the painting deal with the timing between the two rowers."
The painting also includes the physical expressions for propulsion and drag, and the conservation of momentum equation, which Meibom included because "it was surprising to me that the boat is moving the fastest after the release as the rowers slide toward the stern on their seats, and the conservation of momentum demands that the shell has to shoot forward.
"Again, I put those in there because to me numbers and equations are also beautiful, because they tell you something about what it is that you are doing every day, and am hoping that people will enjoy that."
Meibom also later made a painting of a boatman using remnant pieces and cuttings from his other rowing paintings; a painting of a boatman made from the pieces of other paintings does seem a fitting tribute to the boatmen of the sport. "The connection between the boatbuilder and the rower was very interesting to me," Meibom recalls. "It was sort of an ode to that craftsman."
Meibom is not a rower but was rather a Danish pro soccer player, a sport that he also depicts in similar manner in several paintings; he also has collections on the topics of human evolution, radiology, and more.
Meibom's paintings were sold for the fundraiser in 2019, and are now available as prints on photo paper and canvas made from very high resolution, true-to-color scans on his Web site at https://sorenmeibom.shop/collections/rowing-series.
(Thanks to Tom Darling for bringing Soren's art to our attention.)
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