2004 Daily Bulletin - Article Published: Friday, October 08, 2004 - 11:17:44 AM PST  

(Will Lester - Staff Photographer)

Ken Sheffer will have a one-man exhibition titled "Images from the Antipodes of the Mind" at Cal Poly Pomona Downtown Center.

A beautiful mind

San Dimas painter sees more than what meets the eye

By Jennifer Cho Salaff, Staff Writer

Ken Sheffer sees beyond color, shape and texture when he creates a painting. But what he sees, he can't put into words.

"I have to transform my thoughts into images to express them," the former rocket scientist/mathematician/artist said during an interview at his San Dimas home studio. "I think in very abstract kind of images. When I work, I think of physics, I work with the theory of gravitation. I visualize things -- I see -- well (he laughs), it's hard to describe."

Sheffer's most recent work, titled "Images from the Antipodes of the Mind," is perhaps the closest the viewer will get into the former computer scientist's complex thoughts. The exhibition, a colorful collection of abstract oil-on-canvas works, is on display at the Cal Poly Pomona Downtown Center and is part of the monthly Second Saturday Artwalk. It runs through Oct. 31.

"The name (of the exhibition) suggests scenes possibly of a place that doesn't exist in nature, but perhaps in some other place -- like the mind," said Sheffer, 67. "I'm not interested in painting things you can see -- everyone does that, I've done that. I'm interested in things you can't see, things that don't have anything to do with physical reality."


Sheffer's mastery over color and his use of light and shadows result in a rich "gradient" of hues -- colors go from light to dark and intense to muted. The smoothness and uninterrupted transition of colors creates an airbrushed effect, though Sheffer never uses an airbrush to create his pieces.

He uses traditional paintbrushes, painstakingly mixing colors and applying them in horizontal brush strokes one session at a time, allowing each layer to dry. One painting may take a few weeks to complete.

"It takes a tremendous amount of concentration," he said. "It gets pretty monotonous, but you get into this altered state of consciousness. It's sort of a meditation."

Elements common to Sheffer's work include vivid colors, simple hard-edge geometry and often one or two spheres which suggest planets or moons. "Big Sky Ribbon Sea" depicts an otherworldly seaside landscape, perhaps at dusk. The moon reflects off of a colorful "ribboned" ocean. The picture is soothing, meditative. The natural and conceptual collide in Sheffer's paintings, which he calls "metaphysical abstractions."

Longtime Arts Colony fixture and "Images" curator George Cuttress has watched Sheffer's work progress over the past decade. He says the exhibition is a testament to Sheffer's transformation as an artist.

"There's the rigidity to the scientific mind that has been evident in his past work. He has a geometric edge to his work," Cuttress said. "But he is breaking through with new things. There's almost a religious experience looking at his work. It's got a spirituality of its own."


Sheffer's interest in the intersection of art and math began as a high school student in rural Nebraska.

"I began to think, "What is it about a certain shape that makes it appealing or unappealing?'" he said. "I was fascinated with the idea that there might be a way of defining, mathematically, the basis of beauty in many different forms."

As a mathematics and physics major at the University of Kansas (where he also studied art "surreptitiously"), Sheffer began to notice a strong parallel between the development of mathematics in history and the development of artistic expression.

"For example, during the Dark Ages and Renaissance, most of the art was of religious icons in the Western world. They were stiff, geometric figures. So was the mathematics at the time, it was very geometric, very logic-oriented," Sheffer said. "But along came (Isaac) Newton and he changed all that with fluxions, which became known as calculus. The mathematic concepts became fluid and you began to see art breaking free from this rigidness. The development of motion and perspective came into this."

Sheffer recognizes the harmonious relationship between math and art in his own paintings. He sees mathematical principals at work -- the Golden Ratio, differential calculus, the Inverse Square law, proportions, dimensions. They are in sync with the colors, textures, shapes, forms.


Sheffer might be considered a modern day Renaissance man. He has been a rocket scientist (in the 1960s, he was part of a team that worked on a nuclear-powered rocket engine for manned missions to Mars). He was a successful computer scientist for more than 20 years and served as an international emissary for a Fortune 500 computer manufacturer. He currently teaches high school algebra at West Covina High School. He paints, sculpts, does installation art and makes mobiles.

Every corner of his San Dimas home has some kind of art. The books stacked in his living room include titles like "The Pleasure of Finding Things Out," "Model Aircraft" and "The History of Modern Furniture."

For Sheffer, the best art is art that brings another perspective.

"The art that means the most to me is art that makes me see things in a way that I didn't see them before," he said. "That's what I hope would happen to people that come to the show."

Jennifer Cho Salaff can be reached by e-mail atjennifer.cho@dailybulletin.com or by phone at (909) 483-9381.