The Art of Math: A Scottie Heads to Moscow

StudentArt and mathematics double major Xinyao Li ’17 is spending her spring semester studying abroad in Russia after being accepted into the Math in Moscow program at the Independent University of Moscow. The highly selective and respected program offers talented math and computer science students the opportunity to be taught by some of the world’s leading mathematicians. 

What do you enjoy about art and math?
Art is the communication between the artist and the audience. When I create art, I want to show my ideas, especially what I think are very different and important ideas. I try my best to combine art and math together to show my personal development and the inspiration I get from my professors in my artwork.

Math is so neat and organized, which makes my life feel like really tidy. With math, everything will be clear. My recent art piece that I call “Mutation.” It was inspired by the Hamilton Quaternion, which I learned from abstract Algebra class. I realized that sometimes I pay attention to what something is instead of what it might be.

The interesting thing is that when you combine the two together, you can make new discoveries. Sometimes it’s hard expressing something in math, but you can show it in art; sometimes what you learn from art can influence your math study.

Early in your studies you were going to major in math and economics. What changed?
I had already decided my major would be mathematics my first year, but at that time I thought I would major in math and economics because my family helped me to learn economics. After my first year, while I really liked math, I noticed my passion for art. I had a first-year seminar in art history with Katherine Smith; she is really the professor who inspired me, opening my world and mind. I realized that the art world is fantastic, and it could provide me a different way of thinking.

What are you looking forward to studying in Math in Moscow?
The geometry. Agnes Scott does not have courses in geometry, so I think I might get new inspiration from studying it in Moscow.

What do you hope to contribute to others in the program?
Every time I talk to my professors and students about my opinions about math and art, they ask, “How can you do it with math and art?” Some math students don’t like art and have no idea about art history. Some art students feel that math is hard. I want to change their opinions. I think if we translate those abstract formulas and notations into art, it might make math more accessible to people. For them the math is just the terrible formulas and the theorems – hard to memorize – and art is just like drawing and drawing and drawing and art history is just writing papers. But it can be a method and influence your life.

Hands and papers

Who are your Scottie supporters?
Professor Rachel Bayless in the math department and professors Nell Ruby, Anne Beidler and Katherine Smith in the art and art history department. Also, there is my best friend and roommate, Pinyan Xu, and my writing tutor, Meiqing Xiong. Without them, I cannot be who I am today. In my past five semesters here, I have had experienced so many unexpected troubles. Whenever I felt overwhelmed and completely frustrated, they are the people who supported me and gave me courage. They not only inspire me but also are helping shape my personality, making me become more mature than before.  

Given your unique combined interests, have you thought about what career you would like to pursue?
I haven’t decided what field I want to be in the future. I am thinking about getting a master’s in architecture or a Ph.D. in applied math, but the field will have to have a connection with art because art is part of my life. I want to do something with math to let people see how useful the math is and with art to show how art can change our lives. I want to do some inspiring things.