Polar Careers: Peter Wasilewski’s Frizion

Peter Wasilewski  retired from NASA’s Goddard Space Filght Center  in April, 2010, but he’s not resting on his laurels. Instead, he’s having a great time with his hobby - Frizion.  Pronounced fri-szhun, from the combination of frozen and vision, Wasilewski’s photographs explore the visual beauty of ice crystal formation.

“I always thought that nature, and in particular ice, has a particular fascination," Wasilewski says. “Water and ice polymorphs are so fascinating! There are more of them than any other compound in nature - so many ice forms throughout the universe. Mars has a different surface  pressure and temperature structure so the Martian ice would be different from Earth ice. There are many other ice forms. In space, some are amorphous forms of ice.”

A planetary scientist and six-time visitor to the Antarctic, Wasilewski studied the magnetic properties of lunar rocks and meteorites. His first look at ice through the microscope came while collecting meteorites from the Allan Hills in Antarctica. This remote area in the Transantarctic Mountains acts  to collect unusually high concentrations of meteorites that have fallen into high-altitude ice fields and were subsequently transported downhill, trapped in glacial ice in a basin at the foot of the hills. From the dense, blue ice at Allan Hills, Wasilewski created his first thin section, a sliver of ice mounted on a glass slide. The method is generally used for identifying minerals in rocks. Wasilewski was curious to apply the method to ice just as glaciologists do when examining ice cores.

“Old ice, like the ice found in the glaciers near Allan Hills, is not very 'beautiful' under a microscope. To identify minerals, we use polarized light, which plays with light waves,” Wasilewski explains. “Minerals, including ice, show characteristic properties under polarized light, but with old ice, the crystals are too large and bulky and only clear or white light passes through. It’s with the smaller ice crystals that things get interesting.”

Wasilewski's curiosity piqued during the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, New York, where he made thin sections of ice cores taken from the rink where the hockey and figure skating competitions were held. He noticed that special care was taken to ensure that particular properties of ice were taken into consideration when preparing for each event and, consequently, the ice could be used to reveal the recipe used to create the ice surface - a kind of quality assurance.

In 2001, Wasilewski founded NASA’s History of Winter program, a professional development course for upper middle school and high school science teachers. Each February, 25 teachers spend one week living at Northwood School in Lake Placid learning to use the tools and methodologies for the study of  snow and ice. Participants spend most of their time outdoors learning the science behind ice climbing, digging snow pits for snow stratigraphy exercises, drilling lake ice cores, and making thin sections of the ice.

“My approach is to provide content and hands-on experience. We don’t teach [the teachers] how to teach but we teach them how science is done using snow and ice,” says Wasilewski. “The science they do on site provides the basis for ground truth for NASA satellites and other weather observation data and also gives them the tools to be better science teachers. For each teacher we have at our camp, perhaps they influence 1000 students.”

It was during the 2001 History of Winter that Wasilewski ‘s Frozen  Vision began to take shape. While looking at a thin section of ice core from Cascade Lake, he noticed a spiral pattern frozen into the ice, probably related to the spiral distribution of  methane bubbles escaping from the bottom of the lake and freezing in the ice.

Since then, Wasilewski’s kitchen has become his Frizion lab. He experiments with temperature gradients and photographs the water using polarized light as it freezes. Over time, he’s learned to crudely manipulate freezing water into several categories of shapes. Variations in ice thickness create different colors.

“Like snowflakes, no two [Frizions] are the same,” Wasilewski explains. “If I had ultrapure, unagitated water I could get to -40°F before it would freeze instantly, but I cannot get there with my freezer. I’ve stayed up all night in my kitchen taking pictures because once you get into it, you can’t stop.”

Wasilewski has big plans for Frizion’s future. He currently has exhibitions at several galleries across the country including Peabody Essex Museum's Ripple Effect, The Art of H2O,  in Salem, Massechusetts,  an extended special exhibition on water, and he has several  prints up at the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia.

Wasilewski will continue  his involvement with the History of Winter and included his Frizions in CryoConn, a program for Alaska educators to learn about snow science spawned by the History of Winter.

Over the last couple of years, Wasilewski has been experimenting with installation pieces like at the Cogswell Gallery in Vail in January, 2010, where he printed a Frizion image on clear plastic and froze it into a block of ice that became the lead into the rest of the display. Through Facebook, he’s establishing friendships with performance ice sculptors in hopes of  understanding the necessary place for Frizions in trendy ice bars and other spectacular ice displays all over the world. Wasilewski plans to experiment with his technique as well by photographing ice crystals as they begin to melt from a solid and will take photographs through large blocks of ice. He also plans to develop short stories to accompany ice-related non-Frizion art.

You can see more of Peter Wasilewski’s work at the Frizion website, the Polar Artist Group website, and on Facebook. For more information or to order Frizion prints, contact Wasilewski directly at magnetman22@gmail.com. --Marcy Davis