Transforming Natural Phenomenon into Art

Art and science engage the community

Nature has inspired art for centuries; from France Lascaux caves depicting horses from 17,000 years ago to Ansel Adams’ photos in the 1940’s; natural phenomena can be transformed to produce art enjoyed by entire communities. Sam Van Aken, an Associate Professor at Syracuse University, is an artist that engages in extensive research with implications that reach far beyond its initial intentions. While the primary significance of his work is artistic in its attempt to interrupt and transform natural phenomena to produce a miraculous phenomena, the scientific pursuits involved in the process make his work an important addition to the academic community. His current project, entitled A Hole in the Sky, came out of the notion that he and other community members would “do anything for a glimpse of the sun” in the middle of winter in Syracuse, New York. When he came across a phenomena known as “punch hole clouds” or fallstreak holes, he decided he could apply his creativity to creating punch holes for the sun to shine through, illuminating the city below.

Despite the fact that China has conducted extensive research in weather modification, since the 1970’s, chemical and ballistic weather modification research has been prohibited by the US Congress so there is very little applied research or conclusive studies within this area. Therefore, in addition to his contributions to the artistic community, Van Aken’s also hopes to utilize light to produce crepuscular rays, commonly referred to as Buddha’s fingers, while researching the physics underlying the appearance of these phenomena. Similarly, his art lends to scientific research as he explores mechanical means of weather modification as opposed to current chemically induced cloud seeding. Therefore, his research could help create the potential for more research into rainmaking devices. Future research will continue to merge together art, physics, weather prediction models, and community engagement in new and exciting ways.

In the future, Van Aken hopes to expand his efforts in his A Hole in the Sky project; the next stages of his research include:

  • Proof of Concept: To date, Van Aken has completed a proof of concept and has created two punch hole clouds over Syracuse, New York. Therefore, his research has helped identify the previously unknown source of punch hole clouds.

  • Day-to-Day Research: As this project is dependent on the occurrence of supercooled alto-cumulus clouds much of Van Aken’s day-to-day research is focused on weather forecasting particularly predictions of cloud formations. Additionally in the aim of creating crepuscular rays he has been researching the physics underlying the appearance of these phenomena.

  • Test Flight: Van Aken hopes to conduct continued test flights using turbo prop airplanes that will allow him to create larger punch holes in the sky to spread light across the city of Syracuse.

Van Aken’s current research is a piece of his longstanding artistic efforts. Previous projects include:

  • Tree of 40 Fruit: The Tree of 40 Fruit is an ongoing series of hybridized fruit trees. Each unique Tree of 40 Fruit grows over forty different types of stone fruit including peaches, plums, apricots, nectarines, cherries, and almonds. Sculpted through the process of grafting, the Tree of 40 Fruit blossom in variegated tones of pink, crimson and white in spring, and in summer bear a multitude of fruit. Primarily composed of native and antique varieties the Tree of 40 Fruit are a form of conversation, preserving heirloom stone fruit varieties that are not commercially produced or available.

  • Thumper: Thumper transforms sound into a physical phenomena. Mimicking the driving base of a car sound system, in this work a six foot geo-sphere houses 80 subwoofer speakers. Powered by 1,000 watt car stereo amps, the speakers play low frequency bass tracks propelling the sphere across the gallery floor.


Sam Van Aken grew up on a farm where he and his family spent much of their time making the things they needed rather than going to the store to buy them. In many ways, he attributes his artistic abilities to the environment he was raised in, and his parent’s lifestyle. He explains that for him, art was “the only place that [he] kind of fit in.” As he got older, his intellectual pursuits grew alongside his creative passions. With laughter he recollects “where creativity would lead to trouble,” in his early twenties. For instance, he and his friends lived in an abandoned gas station in Portland, Oregon -- a memory his mother is still quick to remind him of at family gatherings.

When he was offered his first professorship, he was delighted that his love of art and academics could be combined for a lifetime career. He has continued to enjoy his role in academia with new projects that excite the community of Syracuse, and inspire compelling artistic forms from the natural world.

Van Aken admits that his work often stems from his hobbies and therefore, in his free time, he enjoys investigating new creative pursuits.



Joan Mitchell Foundation Award for Painters and Sculptors

Creative Capital Grant in Emerging Fields

Maine Arts Commission, Individual Artist Fellowship

Juror's Award for Outstanding Artistic Achievement-Portland Museum of Art Biennial

AICA (Association of International Critics of Art), Exhibition Award for Baja to Bar Harbor: Transnational Contemporary Art Exhibition

University of Maine Research and Development Grant

University of Maine Office of the Vice President of Research Grant