Art and Computer Science: A Double Life

Art image

In 1991, the year I turned forty, I came out of the closet as an artist. I'd been painting as long as I could remember but I had hidden it from my professional colleagues except for a few close friends.

I thought it was hard enough to be taken seriously as a female computer scientist without people knowing I was also obsessed with painting. But at the ripe age of forty I decided I didn't want to live a double life any longer. I framed fourteen of my paintings and hung them around my home and my office as the head of the computer science department at the University of British Columbia.

A week or two later my dean visited my office and noticed the paintings. He said it must be nice to have such a relaxing hobby (aargh … I take painting as seriously as doing research and I don't find either relaxing).

To be honest there was another reason that I was shy about showing people my work. I thought "real artists" wouldn't take it seriously. This had happened to me a couple of times earlier in my life. First, as an undergraduate science major, the fine arts department didn't want to let me take the courses for fine arts majors, as it would be stupid to waste their teaching and resources on a science student. I fought this and was eventually allowed into the classes but often felt less than welcome.

Later as a Ph.D. student I tried to talk about my painting with the artist wife of one of my professors but, without having seen any of my work, she told me I wasn't a serious artist as I hadn't chosen it as my full-time occupation and so she wasn't interested in talking to me.

My "outing" as an artist turned out to be a success. Gradually people asked for more of my paintings to hang elsewhere in the university. I started doing paintings for various fund-raising initiatives and for people who had made major contributions to UBC or were going through milestone events in their lives. This continued through my move to being a vice-president and then a dean at UBC.

One increasingly difficult problem, however, was finding enough time to paint. Weekends had traditionally been my painting time but as I moved into more senior positions an increasing number of weekend days got consumed with meetings of various kinds. In desperation I tried painting during one such meeting … and my problem was solved. I found that for me painting is the ideal complement to being at just about any meeting of three hours or longer. I listen better and interrupt less. And I'm never bored or resentful no matter what's happening in the meeting. Initially there were probably a few people who thought I was being disrespectful by painting but by now it seems to be accepted.

One of the turning points in how I viewed my painting was meeting Kate Collie, a successful professional artist who was doing an interdisciplinary Ph.D. at UBC exploring the impact of art-therapy for breast cancer patients. Kate loved my work and for the first time, a "real artist" treated me as a serious artistic colleague. I'm embarrassed to admit how much this meant to me (why am I so dependent on external validation of my work?) but it was amazingly empowering.

Moving to Princeton as Dean of Engineering in 2003 brought another quantum leap in my confidence as an artist. Upon leaving UBC we held an online auction of fifty of my paintings as a fund-raiser for an endowed scholarship fund that I'd started in memory of my father. Princeton's president, Shirley Tilghman, purchased a painting to hang in her office (one of those first fourteen that I had framed), and routinely introduced me as the new dean of engineering and talented artist. I found that everyone at Princeton loved the fact that I paint (Princeton revels in well-rounded students and faculty).

In July I move to a new position as President of Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California. During my interview I told the chairs of the search committee that I'd be painting at the trustee meetings. It didn't seem to bother them a bit. Sometimes I think about quitting my day job to paint fulltime … but I love computer science, mathematics, teaching, research, students and faculty much too much to do that. And I suspect that much of my emotional energy for painting is deeply interwoven with the intensity of my academic life.

So for the rest of my life I hope to do both.

In 2005, Maria Klawe established the Kathleen W. Klawe Prize for Excellence in Teaching of Large Classes at the University of Alberta in the name of her mother, an economics professor there in the 1960s and 70s. She gives a painting to each person who donates a minimum of $1500 to the endowed fund.