A is for Atom: a conversation with ‘nerd artist’ Tiffany Ard

Visit Tiffany Ard’s Web site, and you’ll see ABC and number cards for babies, a children’s book, and nursery prints, all rendered in the beautiful, whimsical watercolors you might expect from a children’s artist. But within seconds of browsing the site, you’ll realize there is something very, very strange going on here.

In Tiffany Ard’s world, “a” is for atom and “m” is for Mandelbrot fractal set. Counting starts at zero and pauses between three and four to include pi. Her children’s book, titled “Pat Schrodinger’s Kitty,” includes a page showing Enrico Fermi holding hands with Paul Dirac, and invites the precocious young reader to “try to interact with neutrinos.”
“I have a really weird sense of humor,” Ard says. Her tongue-in-cheek products for “nerdy babies” take the parenting obsession with educational products like Baby Genius and Baby Einstein “to its logical extreme,” she says. She puts on a hilarious mock coo. “So H is for hydrogen bonding, and you have to know that, baby.”

While even the most precocious of babies might be a few years and physics classes short of appreciating her artwork, nerdy parents love it. So much so that what started out as one-time present for a nerdy friend’s baby shower is now a budding business, which Ard, formerly a commercial artist working in software marketing, supports from her home near Atlanta while raising a family with her husband, artist Kevin Ard. Her blog is a hilarious account, complete with scientific graphs and flowcharts, of her life as nerd, artist, wife, and mother of two very small, very inquisitive boys. From how much it makes me laugh, I’d say that life at Chez Ard seems best described by throwing the words domesticity, chaos, and happiness into a blender set to “frappe.”
Because her business is entirely online, Ard has let customers have had a hand in her growing line. She painted her latest piece in response to the geologist contingent, who felt underrepresented in her oeuvre. She’s also heard her share of that favorite phrase of scientists, “Well, technically…”; she even has a series of products based on it.
“One great thing is I sell to nerds, and they are really quick about correcting me,” Ard says. One of her prints, a painting of a tortoise with the Magritte-referencing phrase, “Ceci n’est past une turtle,” incited a massive Linnaen debate over whether tortoises and turtles were the same animal. “Holy moly, turtle people are crazy!” Ard says, laughing. She turns, again, to her sense of humor to find an answer. “My husband says, ‘It’s still not at turtle. It’s a picture of a turtle.’ “
One of Ard’s first paintings depicts a little girl standing in the tide under a full moon, just the sort of painting you’d expect in a kindergarten classroom. But the unexpected subject of the girl’s childish ruminations isn’t the flowing sea or a falling star, but the inverse-square law of gravitational attraction:

“It’s like a litmus test to find out if your friends are nerds,” Ard explains. If you saw the painting in a friend’s nursery from far away, she says, you’d have certain expectations.
“[You’d think], oh, it’s probably…’reach for the stars, little girl’, and then you read it, and you’re like, ‘Oh wow, these people are awesome, or terrible nerds.'” Her other astronomy painting takes its inspiration from her college astronomy class.
Boundaries between science and art seem to be fluid for Ard, who claims she always knew she wanted to be an artist, but at the same time always had a fascination with science. She credits her “Renaissance man” father, a pilot, violin maker, machinist, writer and artist.
“It was never presented to us that there are these lines between one field or any other,” Ard says. “It wouldn’t occur to me that physics is walled-off for people who don’t know about it.”
Maybe that’s why she draws freely from math and science for her nerd-delighting artwork. Her easy traversal of the line between art and scientific ideas landed her an invitation to SciFOO, a “Unconference” hosted by Google and organized by IT publisher O’Reilly and the Nature publishing group. One of the running topics for the Unconference was getting the public interested in science.
“It’s kind of a weird conversation for me,” she says. “At least for kids, that’s like sitting around talking about, ‘How do we get our puppies more interested in chewing?’ That’s all they do. Even grownups are interested in science if you can convince them they’re allowed to be.” We hope you let Ard’s artwork convince you.

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