That’s a comment that one of the high schoolers in my Mathematical Art seminar made about this classic piece by the very famous artist Piet Mondrian.

The students in the class went on to agree that the piece, in their opinion, was kind of a let-down. One of the kids said something like, “It’s made of geometric shapes, so you expect there to be something mathematical about it. But then there isn’t, and you feel let down.”

Pretty much the whole class of 17 students agreed. (It’s interesting to note that when I showed the same picture to the middle school students in the math art elective earlier in the day, the room resounded with ooohs and aaahs. The middle schoolers obviously have very different tastes in math art.)

And so began year three of the Saint Ann’s Mathematical Art program. Three former colleagues and I started the program in the winter of 2011. It’s grown tremendously since then. My usual way of measuring the growth of the program is in actual numbers. I’ll tell people about how many more classes we offer to how many more students in how many more grade levels. But in this first math art class on the first day of school, I got an opportunity to measure the growth of the program in the students themselves.

In both the middle and high school classes, I was surprised to see students who’d never taken math art before. In high school in particular, I was expecting to see the usual suspects – but there were several people I’d never taught before, let alone even talked to. MArTH is reaching out to kids in ways I can no longer keep track of.

But, even though many of the students were new to the program, the discussions we had in both the middle and high school classes were deeper and more thoughtful than any we’d had before. In both classes, we discussed the unanswerable question, “What is mathematical art?” The kids had wonderful things to say. Does all art have to be beautiful? What does “beauty” mean in the world of math? Can ugly, unelegant, complicated math be beautiful – and count as art? When is math art just attractive math, or art with a math splash but without a real mathematical intention?

When it came down to it, in both classes the kids decided that mathematical art must intrigue the viewer/listener/reader/whatever mathematically while also being expressive. They also decided that creating something to fit those criteria would be very difficult. But, ultimately, a challenge they would passionately take on.

Discussing art, math, beauty, and emotion with rooms full of eleven through seventeen-year-olds and hearing them reflect on these things with sophistication I would expect of adult mathematicians and artists is a wonder. I am so excited to see what they make!

It is an important question to investigate, I think, about how you can have both math and art at the same time. Can you ever find a perfect balance between the two? Is there more than one way to be artistic and mathematical at the same time? Is it okay if you are more one than the other? How do different art mediums (paint, sculpture, music, dance, etc.) influence the amount and type of math expressed in the art making? Can’t wait to hear and see more examples of their thinking and making!