The artist and his laboratory – tripping the light fantastic

Artist, scientist and educator, Nick Athanasiou. All pictures: David McAlpine

By DAVID McALPINE,
science editor

A small child plops onto a beanbag and gazes skyward.

She is initially indifferent to the dark shapes far above her but then pricks up her ears to a mechanical sound.

Majestic flowers begin their opening sequence, spilling their contents of spectacular light, immersing the girl and the beanbags below in an alien light show.

The flowers are fully open now, their spinning centres revealing a spectrum of changing colours as light is polarised through intricate translucent leaves.

The girl shrieks in delight but is soon disappointed when the flowers begin their closing ritual, the light disappearing behind closed petals reminiscent of tightly clasped hands.

In the shadows adjacent to the display, the creator watches contentedly. This is the reaction his team dreamt of.

He is part  of the creation of LightTime, an art exhibition inspired by science at Melbourne Museum’s Scienceworks, near the western base of the Westgate Bridge in Spotswood.

Nick Athanasiou emerges from the periphery to explain how the artwork, Epiphany’s Genesis, demonstrates the fascinating optical properties of polarisation and birefringence. 

His every response is deeply considered and precisely communicated, a legacy of his years as an educator at Victoria University in Footscray.

Skunk Control’s Epiphany’s Genesis at LightTime.

Underneath his signature hat and unassuming manner, this open, friendly face is the creative force behind science-art collective, Skunk Control.

Athanasiou’s workshop in Footscray is difficult to locate if one is not familiar with the rabbit warren of a building that is Victoria University’s Building G.

Skunk Control’s dark-sounding name soon becomes clear when descending in the elevator.

From former biomedical laboratories, with ghostly fume cupboards now used as shelves, a new kind of teaching space has been crafted for a new style of education.

Several rooms are overfilled with metal laser cutters, a 3D printer, lathes, electrical equipment, half-finished projects on benches and stores of mechanical and decorative components from exhibitions gone by.

Athanasiou and his team of educators, scientists and engineers are part of the Foundation Studies program, a stepping stone to university catering for over 140 students each year who are not able to access direct entry to undergraduate courses.

Nick Athanasiou at work.

“We designed a course that’s for those particular types of students and what we found between all of us in designing it and teaching it, was that students tended to actually learn science content far better when they were actually engaged in doing it,” he says.

“We found that taking them out to the community and them actually themselves teaching it to another group, they actually learnt the science content better again.”

Athanasiou’s team are passionate about art and design as well as science, so they relished the opportunity to combine their two interests while teaching students and building a sense of community and collaboration.

“What we found was, for a student to ask how does this work, it would never happen if you just presented them with content or with an installation that wasn’t visually arresting,” he says.

Over time, the vision evolved to include immersing the broader community in science through visual arts and Skunk Control was born.

This led to the conception of a variety of breathtaking pieces for local exhibitions and as far away as New Zealand and Portugal.

“This has taken over for this year and then there will be aspects in which we go back to do outreach based teaching next year,” he says.

Athanasiou’s path to leading the Foundation Studies program and Skunk Control was a result of years of teaching and science communication experience, during his undergraduate and postgraduate studies in chemistry at Victoria University.

Growing up in Melbourne’s West, he was “always science-focused” as a child but did flirt with a career in architecture until he decided to focus on chemistry.

Flowers on the roof ready to unfurl.

 

“I’m the kid from the west that stayed in the west, essentially,” he reflects.

His migrant parents did not have the opportunity for schooling, which crystallised education as a central tenant throughout Athanasiou’s life.

“My parents are from Greece. Their ethos was essentially the two important things in life are, at the moment for you, going to be food and education,” he recalls.

His father would accompany young Nick and his siblings to the museum and encourage them to spend days at a time observing and learning.

“He knew that education was our way out of what he felt was the poverty that he suffered, because he didn’t have the opportunity to go to school.”

Alongside his dedicated teaching philosophy, Athanasiou’s team is amazed by his combination of a “creative mind” and scientific knowledge.

Co-worker Simon Roberts first encountered Athanasiou at the university’s open day in 2004 as a prospective student and is now a full-time collaborator, as one of Skunk Control’s mechanical engineers.

He recalls “odd thinking” classes in which his teacher would inspire him to “change the way you think”, with activities including building towers with matchsticks and marshmallows.

Athanasiou’s path to leading the Foundation Studies program and Skunk Control was a result of years of teaching and science communication experience, during his undergraduate and postgraduate studies in chemistry at Victoria University.

Growing up in Melbourne’s West, he was “always science-focused” as a child but did flirt with a career in architecture until he decided to focus on chemistry.

Roberts says his mentor is incredibly dedicated, often working from 6am to past 10pm.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if Nick hasn’t taken a holiday in the entire time he’s been here,” he says.

Skunk Control’s physicist-in-residence, Achilleas Nicola, says Athanasiou has an “innate creative ability” and is an inspiring communicator.

“He has a way of describing physical principles that I think young kids could understand,” Nicola says.

“You wait to come to work. That’s part of Nick and it’s part of the job; part of the process of building stuff and seeing how it turns out.”

Back at Scienceworks, a whole new audience is waiting to discover a plethora of wonders that disregard any boundary between art and science.

Nick Athanasiou sits on a bench near the road, his trademark grey cap shading his thoughtful eyes from the glaring winter sun.

He rests in contemplation, perhaps designing his next artwork or planning how to explain a tricky concept to his students. It is only 1pm and his next project is waiting.