Kingston High class on art’s link to chemistry makes for strong reactions

State testing requirements, limited class time and other restraints can sometimes interfere with teachers’ ability to truly educate and inspire their students, but there’s an unusual, interdisciplinary class at Kingston High School that’s breaking the mold.

Art teacher Lara Giordano was driving home from work one day and listening to NPR when she heard a description of a chemistry class for artists offered at a college. She thought such a class would perfect for the high school, given that, she said, “I’ve seen so many kids struggle with chemistry.”

Starting five years ago, she and chemistry teacher Christine Marmo started collaborating on “Chemistry for Artists,” an elective class that enables art majors to fulfill their science requirement with minimal pain and science majors who typically have an overly academic course load to experience the tactile, humanities-based pleasure of an art class.


The class has been a hit every since. Meeting at 8 a.m. five days a week and alternating between the chemistry lab and art room, which are located in the same building, the class examines the chemistry of paper-making; pigments, paints, dyes and binders; clays and ceramics; metals and printmaking; photography; art conservation and restoration; and chemical hazards in art.

Paper making, for example, involves the study of hydrogen bonding between cellulose and water, while electromagnetic radiation, prisms, and the refraction of white light into varying wavelengths relate to color and metallic bonding. After learning about the chemical processes, students make the material or demonstrate the process themselves and/or create an artwork.

They’ve mixed up batches of egg tempera and concocted pastels in various shades, created encaustic paintings after melting pigmented beeswax on a hot plate and laid out cyanotypes in the school parking lot (cyanotypes are a type of photographic image that’s developed through exposure to sunlight).

Senior Kelli Sillik took the class last year and was enthralled. She had previously taken an advanced chemistry class with Marmo. “I had an appreciation previously of chemistry, but I had no idea chemistry and art would be together,” she said. “Just to have our great science and art departments together is wonderful.”

Sillik particularly enjoyed the workshop at R&F Handmade Paints, the Kingston-based encaustic paint manufacturer. (The encaustic workshop is included in the curriculum, and R&F co-founder and president Richard Frumess also does a three-day presentation at the high school on the history and chemistry of color and how pigments interact with various mediums, such as linseed oil and egg tempera.) Sillik is currently working on her wax-covered ceramic sculptures in the free studio space R&F makes available to students.

The students also visit Women’s Studio Workshop in Rosendale to learn about paper making and examine artists’ books. In the past, they visited Center for Conservation at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Museum, in Williamstown, Mass. (before it stopped offering free bus transportation), and this year will visit the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College, to learn about the conservation of drawings, prints and paintings.

Senior Laura Smedman, who plans to major in photography when she attends college, also got a lot out of the class. “I thoroughly enjoyed the process of making paint and paper,” she said.

Slideshow image: Chemistry for Artists students Laura Smedman, Kelli Sillik and Brian Cole, with teachers Lara Giordano and Christine Marmo in the background. Photo by Lynn Woods.