University Museums

Title: Inferences Drawn
Name: Mural
Date: 2009
Medium: Oil on canvas
Dimensions: 56 x 295 in. (142.2 x 749.3 cm)
Classification: Paintings
Credit Line: Funded by the Iowa Art in State Buildings Project for Snedecor Hall. In the Art on Campus Collection, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa.
Location: Iowa State University, Snedecor Hall
Object Number: U2009.1
More Information
Students entering the main door of Snedecor Hall will be struck by a large canvas mural whose focal point is a brightly lit androgynous human head surrounded by diverse symbols, both pictorial and mathematical. Its layered images gradually reveal themselves, suggesting the multifaceted work of statisticians and their connections to both abstract mathematics and real-world data.

Some symbols are blurry and caught in dark shadows, while others are clear and sharp, floating across the canvas and streaming into and out of the head. Those on the viewer’s right, are varied and numerous and include random numbers, chemical symbols, line drawings, the outline of a human, and a cloud and a lightning bolt; all seem to be streaming into the head. To the left, the images are fewer and bolder, representing a later stage in the process of statistical thinking. Viewers will note line drawings of a car, house, a baby holding a bottle, and students of statistics will see recognizable statistical formulae including one for convergent series and another of probability for conditional distribution. Students may be reminded that statistics is the science of decision-making under uncertain conditions and that reaching clarity is challenging and demanding, and often a collaborative process, with insights springing from varied sources and answers changing over time.

The many layers of the mural, including more than 3000 symbols, suggest the diverse worlds in which statisticians work and the layered processes connecting data and mathematical theory. Viewers will enjoy searching for and speculating on the symbols of these worlds. Examples include: A thunderbolt, benzene rings, peapods, and a beetle suggesting meteorology, chemistry, genetics and agriculture, and entomology. A cyclone symbol, one of the many on the Iowa State campus, also appears on the far right. The multitude of symbols in the painting means that even after passing by the canvas many times, viewers may discover something new.

The title, Inferences Drawn, refers to the process statisticians engage in when they sample a population and estimate its unknown characteristics. The creation of this work, like statistical science, demanded collaboration, patience and time. Artists Tom Rosborough and Bill Barnes worked on the project for 18 months. Their research included talking with department members in statistics and examining their whiteboards, manuscripts, and texts.

Inferences Drawn was the first project on which Barnes and Rosborough collaborated with one another though Barnes earlier had worked with other artists on a mural at Iowa State, Unlimited Possibilities, in the Parks Library, and Rosborough collaborated with Rebecca Ekstrand in 2014 on a mural in the School of Education. Bill Barnes, grew up in California before continuing his art studies at Drake and Iowa City, and is noted for small landscapes and still-life studies combining unlikely small objects. His work is included in private and corporate collections around the world. Tom Rosborough was educated at the University of Chicago Academy of Art and is an illustrator and graphic designer whose art has appeared in a variety of Meredith Corporation and other publications.

Written by Roberta Vann, University Museums Docent