March 6, 2015

Late UChicago chemist’s art exhibit breaks down left- and right-brain barrier

It’s easy to place people into categories: introvert or extrovert, left-brained or right-brained, and so on. However, University of Chicago chemistry legend Gregory Hillhouse demonstrated that an individual is more than a category. Hillhouse was more than a scientist; he was also an artist. Last Monday, his artwork was honored at Kent Hall.  The walls on the first floor of Kent were covered with his cubist paintings and replications of his paintings of flowers. In addition to showcasing much of Hillhouse’s artistic work, a photo slideshow was on display that showed his interactions with his students, his involvement in sports, his educational accolades, and his involvement in the chemistry community.

The exhibit demonstrated that Hillhouse was the epitome of the modern Renaissance man. In addition to winning several awards for his achievements in research and teaching, he was an avid and prolific cubist painter, a gourmet chef, and an accomplished basketball player. According to his colleagues, he was a dedicated chemistry adviser ready to write an amazing letter of recommendation for his students. Hillhouse was constantly thinking of ways to better the academic experiences of those whom he mentored. The legacy he left includes Chemistry 296, a non-credited research-based course that allows students to demonstrate their research efforts through their coursework. Before its existence, there was no way for undergraduate students’ research efforts in chemistry to be reflected in their academic transcripts.

At first glance, Hillhouse’s many interests seem unrelated. So often we categorize science as a purely logical and emotionally removed discipline, devoid from any creativity. Hillhouse’s artwork is a clear example that separating the world of art from the world of science is a fallacy that is often limiting. This fallacy can keep those who are interested in a particular field from pursuing other interests in their lives. His work demonstrates that science and art can be combined to make something vibrant and beautiful. Many of his paintings are filled with colors and lines that are reminiscent of the illustrations of atomic bonds and reactions that can be seen inside many chemistry textbooks. As explained by his colleague Vera Dragsich, Hillhouse would often say his hands were “touched by God,” referring to the fact that all of his interests were related to his handiwork, and that he was lucky to be able to be so diverse in the things that he did.

So often, we are focused on categorizing people as left-brained or right-brained, as if everyone has to be one or the other. Through his life’s work, Hillhouse demonstrated that there is no need to have limited, insular interests. Hillhouse showed us that love of chemistry can be reflected in a love of art, which can also be reflected in a love of cooking. Similarly so, we can all make our strengths apply to any field that we are interested in, regardless of major or overarching life choice. From attending the exhibition of his work, I learned the true definition of achievement. More specifically, I came up with a personal definition of success and learned what it means to have spent a life well-lived, well-rounded, and well-loved.