Calculated Beauty

If there’s a single word that describes the collaboration between artists Mariah Doren and Johanna Paas—and the startling images that have emerged from their partnership—the word might be “symbiotic.” Doren’s and Paas’s “Nature’s Math” portfolio, which appears in the March/April 2012 issue of Orion, is an exploration of what emerges from the weave between mathematics and natural form, order and chaos, and the imagination of two separate minds. We asked the artists to describe the creative process behind their remarkable images.


We began this project by searching for common conceptual ground. As individual artists, our work is visually, conceptually, and technically very different: Mariah makes composite photographs of man-made landscapes, such as golf courses and landfills; and Johanna creates collages of hand-pulled prints, with hand-drawn imagery of micro- and macrocosms.

After much discussion we realized that our connection is a search to articulate the relationship between structure and nature—we both seek to describe the interaction of order and chaos, real and fake, affect and apprehension.

We begin by choosing and defining a mathematical formula, which serves as a boundary. We then discover and develop visual metaphors for evidence of the formula in nature. We list attributes of the formula that function as rules for the game of making images, and, after listing, sketching, photographing, and dialog, the visual metaphors either encourage or challenge the evidence of structure within nature.

Our investigation is thoughtfully planned, not an intuitive process or the product of serendipity, and our method forces us to verbalize and articulate our ideas. For us, the process of making imagery is interwoven with the content of the work.

We are conscious to make our collaboration a joint process, not simply a merger of our individual interests or skills. When asked which of us made which part of a collage, the answer is always—carefully and intentionally—both of us.

Mariah Doren’s and Johanna Paas’s collaborative artwork was recently exhibited at the Center for Photography in Woodstock, New York. Doren teaches at Parson’s in New York City; Paas teaches at Central Michigan University.