An Artist Considers Levels in Matter

by Gertrude Myrrh Reagan

Published in Leonardo, July 1990, Vol. 23 No.1

ABSTRACT  The idea that particles make atoms, atoms make molecules,and molecules make visible matter—matter that lives and thinks-is basic to a scientific understanding of the universe. While working with hexagons and pondering this hierarchy, the author discovered two surprising circular arrangements of these levels that may shed light on how we think when using these concepts.


The hexagon is one of the basic patterns in nature on flat surfaces. Put three hexagons together, and their 120˚ angles add up to 360˚: they tile a plane. That hexagons are used so little in art and architecture is not surprising, for joining three 120˚ angles requires greater accuracy in drawing and carpentering than joining four 90˚ angles [1]. This underused motif had great appeal to me because I enjoy diagonal lines [2].

I had the desire to work on a large scale, but I had little storage space. Using hexagons, I could work in modules. The size of the hexagon I chose was 18-in across in the longest direction. If hexagons were rendered on cloth, I reasoned, they would be as trouble-free as quilts to store or transport. Batik was the medium I used in the first two works, Potpourri (Fig. 1) and Animal, Vegetable, Mineral (Fig. 2). I devised several ways to control the hot wax resist to do fine, controlled work. Fiber-reactive dyes on cotton were my materials, delicate Indonesian wax pens were my tools. On the third work, Conjecture (Fig. 3), where the hexagons were slightly larger, I devised a way to do the drawing in oil-base printer's ink. Just as paper can be laid on a uniformly inked surface and the drawing can be done with a stylus on the top (back) side of the paper, I discovered that stretched cloth can be similarly used. Next, I batiked the background.

Fig. 1. Potpourri, quilted batik, 72-in triangle, 1973.

Potpourri was quilted in the traditional way. In the other two hangings, each hexagon had a backing and was stuffed with two layers of polyester felt to give it the substance needed for a wall hanging.

My specialty as an artist is representational drawing, but photography has taken over many of the functions of this kind of art. The strategy of many artists has been to invent abstractions. Mine has been to find abstractions in nature to represent, and to place them in new contexts. In so doing, I have learned to observe nature and human artifacts in a fundamental way, looking for patterns and pondering the reasons for them.

Sensitized, I began encountering six-sidedness everywhere. Many shapes were perfectly regular hexagons, but some of the interesting ones were not. I decided to include these in my collection of patterns. As the collection increased in number, my task became that of selecting from a wealth of motifs. Whereas in the first hanging, Potpourri, I used everything from a tortoise shell to a manhole cover design, the second large batik, Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, contained only natural objects.

Fig. 2A. Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, batik, 108-in. triangle, 1977.

Another work, Benzene, (Fig. 2B)  rendered in embroidery and patchwork, contains seven conceptualizations of the benzene ring, including the 1865 original. When a phenomenon has many properties, it is difficult to find one diagram or formulation to cover them all. The subject of this hanging was the use of multiple working hypotheses to aid understanding, a subject that has become a major theme in my subsequent work.

Fig. 2B. Benzene, embroidered quilt, 40” diameter, 1978.

The subject of Conjecture is the diagrams that scientists have made to explain their theories about the physical world. This work continues to evolve; the present version is shown in Fig. 3.

For Conjecture I decided that it would be especially interesting to find designs that represent different levels, or scale lengths, of the structure of matter. I freely admit that there is no necessary relation between these levels and hexagons; but, once having decided on a theme for my new hanging, I stumbled onto designs that more or less fit both of these criteria. The method was not rigorous but rather suggestive.