Bonds of Beauty
The search for discovery leads alumnus from art to chemistry, and back.
On Whidbey Island in Puget Sound, 90 minutes north of Seattle, Wash., and surrounded by gardens, fences, and fruit trees, Terry Balle works at the unusual intersection of art and science.
Inside his sculpting studio he carefully assembles the various raw materials of his trade: polymer resins, graphite, organic dyes, polymers, and leaves of gold and silver that have been hammered into sheets so thin and fragile that they’ll blow away if he sneezes.
Then, with sketches, mathematical calculations, and tools he’s made himself, Balle begins to sculpt. Thorough and gentle by nature, he bonds the raw materials together and places the shape into an oven for days to prepare it for carving. Once he carves an outline, Balle grinds and fashions the material into artistic form with a progression of sandpaper, rough to smooth. Finally he polishes it and inscribes his signature on the glassy surface.
Balle says that symbols can’t be put into a box, but they can, in a way. He sculpts various geometric shapes and objects, ranging in size from a few inches in diameter to 10 feet in height, and delivers the commissioned works to galleries, businesses, homes, and hospitals across the country. Noted for their dazzling interiors of etched gold and silver, it’s what happens to the sculptures under the light that can’t be easily defined.
“We consider the art an exploration of the reciprocal nature of medicine as a science and art, and art as a science and vehicle for healing,” says Reed Kratka, a physician at Northwest Specialty Clinics in Springfield, Ore., when they placed 25 of Balle’s sculptures on permanent display throughout five floors of the clinic.
Balle, in his 60s, has experience ranging from war to welding shops, and from chemistry labs to art studios. What he’s learned is this: Art and science merge together. In fact, for Balle, who has a doctoral degree in physical chemistry from the University of Illinois, the two need each other.
“I believe science can supply an objective criterion to guide the creation of sculpture, whereby art gives beauty to science, and science gives new meaning to art,” Balle says.
He didn’t always think so. As a young man in the 1960s he tried to make it as an artist, working in metals, but it was a struggle. Then he went to Vietnam and came home motivated to counter the enormous destruction he’d witnessed in the war.
Balle re-enrolled in college to pursue not art, but science.
“In the presence of the huge machine that is war, art seemed rather ineffective,” he recalls, “but science is based on the fundamental power and truth of the physical world. Since science is grounded in physical reality, that is where you need to start in order to build or create anything, including art.”
While earning his bachelor’s degree at the University of Oregon, Balle heard of Willis “Bill” Flygare, a young professor at the University of Illinois then considered one of the most promising physical chemists in the field. When Balle was admitted to the doctoral program in chemistry in the mid-1970s, he asked Flygare if he could study under him.
Flygare was a hard-driving, pickup-basketball-loving, brilliant researcher whose love of chemistry and learning has resonated in former students for their entire careers. Eventually, he was also one of the inspirations for Balle to return to art.
In 1981, not long after Balle earned his doctoral degree, Flygare died of Lou Gehrig’s disease, at age 44. His former students were devastated.
“We developed very close relationships,” recalls another of Flygare’s former students, Alan Burnham (PhD ’77, chemistry). “I know that when he got sick it was kind of hard to believe and hard to take. His death affected me almost like a father.”
Balle was amongst those closest to Flygare. While studying at Illinois, Balle worked with Flygare to develop a new technique of spectroscopy to analyze molecules that has since been used in research laboratories worldwide. It was through Flygare that Balle also heightened his taste for discovery.
After leaving Illinois, Balle worked in industry from Bell Laboratories to Digital Equipment Corporation, but something seemed missing to him. In one job he approved new equipment purchases, which he would turn down if they weren’t based on good science. That didn’t always earn him friends, but Balle couldn’t help himself.
“I was a little bit spoiled from working with Flygare,” Balle says. “He was such a great man that it was almost like industry never had that level of seeking for the truth of materials that I had at Illinois. It was always kind of disappointing.”
Disenchanted, Balle left industry in 1988 to pursue the “truth of materials” he’d learned in the chemistry labs with Flygare. But deep down Balle was still an artist, and it occurred to him that he could search for the truth of materials in art studios, too.
With savings, he started a sculpture studio in Boston and learned about an acrylic with similar light properties as glass, with the key difference being that acrylic was based on carbon instead of silicon—an important distinction for the artist/chemist.
“All our chemistry is DNA and our whole bodies and tissues are carbon based,” Balle says. “Glass is silicon based. And so I wanted to do sculptures that were based on carbon.”
Before long Balle hired a staff to help him handle increased demand for his sculptures. But he felt bogged down by paperwork and payrolls, and in 2003 Balle and his wife, Didi, a writer and director, moved to Whidbey Island, where Balle resumed sculpting, this time as a sole proprietor. Today he enjoys a steady stream of commissions.
This past March he returned to Illinois for the annual Flygare Memorial Lecture, where he unveiled a new sculpture, The Golden Tetrahedron, in honor of his old advisor. In typical fashion the sculpture is packed with symbolism, all the way from its shape, symbolizing carbon bonds and carbon chemistry, to the 23-karat gold leaves that draw a parallel between the incorruptible metal and Flygare’s pursuit of truth.
Before the lecture, Balle placed the sculpture on a podium. When someone turned on the spotlights the sculpture glittered and seemed to dance with the light, making clear to those who stopped that indeed there is common ground between art and science, and it is beauty.
By Dave Evensen