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The Ruby is a catalyst for creativity and a new home for making art at Duke University.

Heather Gordon, Artistic Data Miner

Published By Robert Zimmerman
Published on: August 13, 2019

In her summer residency in the Ruby, local artist Heather Gordon explores the abstract shape of data from Duke Forest and the key word from a Dr. Seuss classic.

Heather Gordon painting on canvas

Heather Gordon, an independent artist based in Durham, is in residence at the Ruby during August for two related projects. First, to install a tape piece on windows by the courtyard. Second, to create new work in the painting studio. The common thread is trees, but no actual trees will be depicted. Gordon works with data: numerical values processed through an app that creates origami folding patterns—but no paper will be folded.

It has something to do with Dr. Seuss and something to do with Duke Forest, but you’d never guess that by looking.

Art School, Life Lessons

Gordon talking and gesticulating as she looks at diagrams she made for her work
Gordon with diagrams she used to make her tape piece.

Gordon is the only child of an accountant and an engineer. Her father was in the Air Force, so she grew up moving from base to base. She finished high school while living on a base in Florida, so she enrolled in the University of Florida, thinking she’d become a pharmaceutical researcher and realizing instead that she needed to be making art.

“I got a good solid background in college because my instructors spent a lot of time talking to us about technique and dissecting paintings from the past and thinking about space and materials. We didn’t talk much about concept, but at the time I was told, ‘That’s for graduate school,’” Gordon says.

But the small MFA program she joined at New Mexico State University brought a blues song worth of bad luck and trouble. A brutal studio critique forced her across the threshold of making work with conceptual substance. For her first real show she created black and white images of body piles, vaguely abstracted so that it took a while for viewers to realize what horror they were looking at. Unfortunately, the movie Schindler’s List was released right after her show opened and suddenly everyone saw her work as derivative.

After that, she was on track into her final semester when a fellow student—a sculptor—committed suicide by hanging himself in his studio. It was shattering to everyone in her tight-knit little student cohort for all the obvious reasons and then some, because he gave his last act a deeply undermining twist.

“It felt angry, the way he made art of his own death,” Gordon says. “Art had always been a refuge for me. His death took that refuge away.

“I had originally gone for my MFA so I could teach, but after these events I lost faith in the educational system and had to rethink the whole plan. I was visiting my folks in Asheville because they retired there and I noticed it didn’t have an art supply store. We got to talking about about that, and next thing you know, we were opening one.”

Discovering Data

Heather Gordon posing with her work in progress
Gordon with sketches from the Duke Forest data

Gordon ran the business for about a decade, with some teaching and web design work on the side. During off hours, she made a little art, just for herself.

“I happened to start doing some data-related work because a friend gave me a box of graph paper she found at a second-hand store,” Gordon says. It was circular and was divided into hours of the day—for tracking humidity and pressure and stuff, but I didn’t know that. I started translating world literature into binary code and very methodically plotting it.” She showed her plots to a few friends, who thought she’d lost her mind.

Around that time, she pulled up stakes and moved to Durham, taking a studio at Golden Belt, where she continued plotting. “It was six months before I showed them to anybody because I had had such negative reactions before. But once I opened the door, all the computer science people in this area went bonkers for them.”

The validation felt nice, and making the plots was fun but they weren’t meaningful. She needed something with more personal significance. The trigger, when it came, couldn’t have been more mundane.

“A site was asking me, ‘What was your first car? What was your first pet’s name?’,” Gordon says. “I mean, I knew that I had entered that stuff, but did I remember correctly at the time? It just didn’t feel like a very definitive way of establishing who I am.

“I thought to myself that they really ought to figure out an algorithm for creating a three-dimensional shape from data that you could never forget, like where you were born and your parents’ names.

“I often ponder the shape of things that we don’t typically think of in that way. When I was in New Mexico, I remember having this seed of an idea about the shape of the empty space, and how the light worked within it, but not really knowing what to do with that.”

The password questions got her thinking along the same lines, about the shape of her identity and relationships. She started learning about geometric folding patterns and discovered the work of Erik Demaine, a prodigious artist-scientist at MIT who wrote the textbook Geometric Folding Algorithms.

“That got me all excited because I love math and geometry—a lot—and had been missing it. Nowadays in the arts it’s very different, but when I was coming up, the idea that you liked math, you just didn’t say it!”

All the study led her to create a truly meaningful data-driven work, How to Fold My Heart, which is “about the seven people in my life who made me who I am.” It’s based on the distance from Durham to the place each person was born, and the distance to their current residence—a total of 14 data points, which she translated into a folding pattern, following Demaine’s technique as best she could.

Gordon’s piece How to Fold My Heart is based on a very personal data set. The distance from Durham to seven people who shaped her (their birthplace and their current home).

“Each fold is either a mountain fold or a valley fold, but they can only follow in certain kinds of progressions. It ends up being quite difficult to make patterns that are not just mathematically valid, but can actually be physically folded,” Gordon explains.

It took her a year to make How to Fold My Heart and its follow-up, How to Fold My Home. Fortunately, an open-source program incorporating Demaine’s work—TreeMaker—came out soon after. She’s been relying on it ever since.

Plotting the Light

Heather examining a stack of old records at her table in the archives
In the Rubenstein Library browsing a stack of raw data from Duke Forest

When Gordon visited the Ruby after being invited for a residency this summer, trees emerged as a natural focus—all it took was looking out the north-facing windows at the forest line. The most substantial part of her summer’s work is her engagement with a trove of data and other material from Duke Forest that has recently been deposited in the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

“The first set of data I came across as I got boxes from the archivists was from a couple of scientists who studied luminosity and went out to their forest plots over a three year period in the ‘30s,” Gordon says. “They were using paper from old board meetings, drawing grids on the back and filling them in with measurements from a light meter. There are about a dozen entries on each sheet, and some calculations.

“I’ll take each data set and create an origami base, which is somewhat like a connected tree. And then I use TreeMaker to generate a folding pattern. All I’m doing is inputting the data and setting the ratio of height to width—I don’t want to have to make a choice about anything, I just want to see what the data looks like as an unfolded shape.”

The folding pattern that results is not the piece, it’s a structure to build the piece on. Gordon typically chooses from two different approaches to creating an image—stripes or arcs. Her work in the Ruby so far includes one of each.

steps on the making of UNLESS Tree
Steps in making UNLESS (from left to right): the origami base (a simple tree connecting the data points); the folding pattern output by TreeMaker; plan for executing the design with tape.

Stripes on a Skeleton

The tape piece in the courtyard windows is the stripe variety. The piece is a graphic riff on the word “UNLESS,” featured at the end of Dr. Seuss’s book The Lorax, as the little boy protagonist is entrusted with the very last Truffula seed and sent forth to restore the poisoned landscape. The data is the standard numeric representation of the word’s six letters on a computer—the ASCII codes.

tape piece on the Ruby's windows
UNLESS, by Heather Gordon

The folding pattern for this piece is like a skeleton, and the tape is like a striped skin, but the connection is intuitive and artistic rather than rigorous. Gordon created the design on paper, chose a color scheme, then laid out an order of operations for applying the vinyl tape, so it’s layered the same way on each repetition of the design. She’s pretty casual about the variation and error that creep in as she works, though—they’re signs of the human touch.

“Most people never even notice it,” Gordon says, after pointing out half a dozen irregularities in her work. “They say, ‘Oh, my God, you’re such a perfectionist!’ No, I’m really not, you’re just not looking closely.

“The piece ended up looking like a tree with a root system, which is great! But I didn’t plan for that, it’s just what came out of all the mountain and valley folds and other active pathways within the origami system, as a computer optimizes it.”

The color scheme solidifies the connection, and viewed through the Ruby windows, the piece creates a lovely dialog with the forest behind.

Ripples on an Abstact Pond

Gordon took the arcs approach for her first painting based on the Duke Forest luminosity data. It involves using a compass to draw concentric arcs around a set of focal points in the folding pattern. The resulting pattern of overlap and interference looks like ripples in a pond, and the final image is her artistic impression of that pattern.

abstract painting
Work in progress: four quandrants of Duke Forest luminosity data interpreted in painting (colors of the final product will almost surely be completely different, according to Gordon).

The painting is based on data from four adjacent quadrants in the forest study and is presented that way, as a group of four square canvases. It is abstract and rather geometric, and says something about the dappling of light and dark in the woods, which is always and everywhere the same but a little different. “There’s something beautiful and poetic,” Gordon says, “in thinking about the trees and forest in terms of light.”

There’s even less reason for the luminosity data work to seem tree-like than UNLESS—after all, stripes of tape are inherently branch-like, while the visual metaphor for the arc construction is ripples. It took a visitor from the Duke Forest team to look at the irregular concentric circles in the middle of Gordon’s work in progress and point out the obvious—tree rings.

Heather Gordon is in residence through August 23 in the painting studio. See her tape installation, UNLESS, near the film theater through Spring 2020.

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