"What do you think about when you hear the word polymer?" asks curator Elizabeth Weinstein as she enters the Louisiana Art & Science Museum's Soupcon Gallery.
Plastic, people say, and they're not wrong. But that's just one example of a polymer in the museum's "Polymers in Art through the Centuries" exhibit, running through Sept. 3.
LSU chemistry Professor John Pojman joined Weinstein in curating this show that takes a look at how science mixes with the art world in everything from painting to jewelry to fashion.
"This show is the perfect example of our museum's mission," Weinstein says. "We're an art and science museum, and this shows how both work together. We hope our visitors will learn something new from this."
Pojman is known for creating a new polymer called 3P QuickCure Clay, which requires no kiln for curing. Clay is a byproduct of polymer, which is a chemical compound of small, identical molecules called monomers. These molecules link together to form repeating, structural units resembling chains.
"One of the oldest polymers is wood," Weinstein says. "A lot of people don't think of wood as a polymer, but there are so many that we had to think about how we could present this show without overwhelming viewers."
The result is a chronological timeline, beginning with the oldest polymer forms and how they are incorporated into art. But that's only part of the story.
"There's also the scientific part of this show," Weinstein says. "We wanted to include the scientific explanations and images, but if we included these on the walls, we knew we'd lose the viewers."
The solution was printing the information on separate labels, which are inserted into pockets along the timeline. And there definitely is much to learn, beginning with examples of such natural polymers as wood, plant fiber and those produced by insects.
Silk is included in the insect category and is represented by a "Tibetan thang-ka," which a painting on a silk and cotton surface.
"Nature was the provider for prehistoric and ancient cultures," Weinstein says. "That changes as we move into the Middle Ages and Renaissance."
That's when paint emerged as a prolific medium with watercolor, defined as pigment suspended in a water-based solution, as one of the oldest forms. Oil paints contain no polymers but polymerize under the influence of oxygen in the air, the exhibit cards state. Later, linen, yet another polymer, replaced wood as a painting surface.
The show continues with the Modern era, where milk was incorporated to make Galalith pieces, including jewelry and acrylic paint. It ends with an exploration of newer polymers, including Pojman's QuickCure clay and the use of 3-D printers to make art.
One of the show's highlights — a suspended, artful, plastic egret — was created with a 3-D printer.
"And a lot of people don't associate fashion with polymers, but that's what our textiles are," Weinstein says.
The LSU Textile Museum loaned a dress from the 1980s by designer Mary McFadden that's created out of polyester.
"Polyester refers to polymers created from the reaction of alcohols and carboxylic acids," the exhibit label states. "The reaction of these two groups creates an ester."
And through Pojman's contribution to the show doesn't have the pizzazz of McFadden's shiny '80s dress, it does project a sense of hometown pride.
Pojman was developing a new kind of wood sealer before coming to LSU. Artists began expressing interest in it upon learning that it was a type of clay that didn't require a kiln for curing. Pojman finished development of the clay in Baton Rouge and now sells it through Pojman Polymer Projects.
The show includes two small sculptures created from the clay by Shelby Prindaville. Both are on loan from Pojman, who also loaned Galalith and Bakelite pieces.
"I'd been working on the clay for 20 years, but I never thought about it for artistic use," Pojman says. "But that's what this show is about."
Polymers in Art Through the Centuries
WHEN: Through Sept. 3. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday; and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.
WHERE: Louisiana Art & Science Museum, 100 S. River Road, Baton Rouge
ADMISSION: $9; $7.50 ages 3-12 and 65 and older; $8 on the first visit for university students with ID, who will get a one-year museum membership.
INFORMATION: (225) 344-5272 or lasm.org