Science as art

This artist and UI/UX designer has found inspiration in everything from secondhand items to historic pictures of nuclear tests

February 5, 2024

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Mia's workbench is often covered with tools for her latest projects, which can run from making jewelry to ceramics.

For nearly a year, Mia Jaeggli was tasked with preserving historic photographs of weapons tests for Los Alamos National Laboratory’s National Security Research Center. As Mia digitally scanned each picture, she reflected on the massive and micro scales that scientists of the time wanted to understand.

"The Lab has a collection of tens of thousands of photographs and negatives," Mia says, who received her master's in library and information science, and before grad school attended the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. "They're amazing. To see what these scientists had captured from the Nevada Test Site, the Marshall Islands, the radiographs and the high-speed tests, I found it all deeply inspiring."

Mia has always made art, and her artwork spans media: sculpture, jewelry, illustration, photographs and found objects. As she sifted through the nuclear test photos, she imagined a series of pieces based not on the nuclear explosions, but on the scientific process of analyzing something that was both miniscule and grand.

"You have scientists recording something at this very large scale but also concerned with understanding the reaction at the atomic scale," Mia says. "I wanted to recreate that view, and the process I saw in the tests, translating it from this very scientific endeavor to an artistic one."

One weekend, Mia cleared the art studio table at her Los Alamos home. The desk is often a reflection of her latest project: Covered with metalworking tools, printouts of her photography, or ceramic slurry and bits of clay from her ceramic sculpture. On this day, she sat at the computer and began to play with some of her past work, zooming in and out, applying filters, dashing new lines with a digital paint brush. "I started out intuitively," she says, "playing with colors and perspectives."

The pink bathmat

Mia's journey to the Lab was rather circuitous. After art school in San Francisco, she earned her master's in library and information science at San Jose State University. She took a job as an academic librarian, in charge of collections on psychology, alcohol and drug research, and architecture. She then joined a tech startup doing user interface design for data analysis applications, but later found her way back to art and started post-grad work in digital archives.

Like many others during the pandemic, Mia and her husband, a Google software engineer, suddenly found themselves unburdened by an office commute. They could live anywhere. That's when Mia found an opening at the Lab, in the National Security Research Center, where she would help digitize and log archival material.

Mia spent a year at the NSRC surrounded by hallways of the Lab's past research. Then in 2023, Mia switched to her current positions on the UI/UX Design Team, where she has been busy remaking the external website and designing Lab business applications.

"I've enjoyed the work a lot because it draws on both areas of my background," she says. "I'm looking at metadata, how we should present search filters, how we should present results. It's a lot like how an archivist would organize material for it to be more accessible. I think a lot about how to help users find information quickly. Then, of course, the presentation of the site needs to be pleasing to the eye, which draws on my art background."

Unlike many artists who move to New Mexico, she has not sought inspiration from the high-desert landscapes or sunsets. Two windows in her art studio overlook a canyon, and the view provides a welcome distraction. But for the most part, Mia's art is concerned "more with the internal, emotional landscape."

One of the more personal pieces she's made was dedicated to her brother, who had struggled with mental health issues. Made during a workshop at Penland School of Craft in 2019, Mia's instructor asked students to find an everyday item. So, Mia browsed a local thrift shop and fell in love with a neon pink, plastic bathmat. The instructor then gave students a list of actions to make upon the object — they were told to cut, burn, weave, punch holes in and roll the material.

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Mia with her art piece, "BREATH."

"You go through this process of transforming this mundane object into something completely different," Mia says.

The result was "BREATH," a piece that looks like part mask, part sea creature and part cilia, the tiny hairlike structures in a person's lungs that help them expel foreign germs. The piece forces the wearer to experience how breath influences emotion.

Another pink object made from the same bathmat is called "Anemone." (See the final product.)

"If anything, my experience in New Mexico and at the Lab has led to a lot of intellectual and emotional growth," she says, "and that has started to reflect in my artwork. For a long time, I would jump from one medium to another because I wanted to chase my interests. Now I find myself settling a little more on specific ideas, or a series."

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Mia holds two examples of her jewelry.

Changing perspectives

The series of pieces that became "Create, Destroy, Analyze, (Re)Use," evoked by the photos of nuclear tests, began with Mia altering some of her past artwork. She wanted to keep track of the progression, so each piece is labeled in the format she used for her archival work, creating a kind of family tree.

From the original, the next piece might be zoomed way in, focused on a single line that looks similar to the veins of a plant. Maybe she would digitally erase sections, then convert those remaining sections into watercolor. Or Mia might zoom out and create a patterned effect, so the line becomes a shape, part of a larger network of circles. Then she may zoom ever farther out, so that the circles appear as if they are stippled dots on a larger landscape.

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Mia's artwork that was inspired by nuclear test photos. The digital art experiments were developed through a process of creation, destruction and re-creation.

The work plays with these macro-to-micro and micro-to-macro scales, with some pieces that look like cross sections of a cell and others like constellations in a galaxy.

"To me, there's a mystery in the series that I first noticed in the nuclear test photographs," she says. "That's what I tried to convey. You realize what the scientists hoped to capture with images from those tests. They were breaking things to make them better, to come up with a better design. So, we break, analyze and repeat. I found that idea very powerful."

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Left: A mixed media painting interpreting a digital experiment. Right: A mixed media painting and lithograph interpreting a digital experiment.

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