Biologist has an artistic alter ego

Pam Hersh

The man displaying his artwork at the Community Art Exhibit on Community/Staff Day may look like Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Professor Henry Horn. But the collages created from discarded computer and electronic parts are signed by J. Chester Farnsworth.


Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Professor Henry Horn will be displaying his collages created from discarded computer and electronic parts at Community/Staff Day Oct. 6.


Horn created Farnsworth as an alter ego to express his artistic talents. What connects the two is a passionate commitment to saving the earth's environment. Horn/Farnsworth will be one of many local artists showcasing their work at the Oct. 6 event (see related story on this page).

Horn readily acknowledges that he is wired a bit differently from others. But this "slightly wacky wiring" has resulted in a spark of creative genius. For Horn and his "altered ego" Farnsworth, computers are far more than a tool or means to an end. They are the end, a piece of art -- which then becomes a means to an end of enormous value to Horn: teaching others about the value of the environment.

"Art allows me to convey a message in a way that leaves a lasting impression," Horn says.

For the past two decades, Horn in his Farnsworth persona has been creating aesthetically pleasing and environmentally crusading collages composed of obsolete computer innards, lab equipment and other electronic waste. In addition to the fact that his artwork is made from all natural and/or discarded materials, the "profoundly silly, in other words, profound and silly" message conveyed by the design often makes a political statement about the environment that reflects the philosophy of Horn, who co-founded the University's Undergraduate Program in Environmental Studies in 1991.

Horn's personality seeps into Farnsworth's creations by inspiring the often satirical and thought-provoking commentary that accompanies the collages. Farnsworth's best known assemblages emerge out of the uncanny resemblance between circuit boards/electronic gizmos and the ubiquitous structures of suburban sprawl, such as housing developments, office complexes and entertainment/shopping centers. These unusual art supplies comprise artwork with titles such as "Cluster's Last Stand" (from cluster housing), "Suburban Forest" and "New Jersey Open Space," which speak to the issue of humans corroding and eroding the natural environment -- doing to the environment what a computer virus does to a program.

Farnsworth's artwork has been widely exhibited locally over the past 10 years -- but never sold. The Friends of Princeton Open Space and the Stony Brook Millstone Watershed Association are Farnsworth aficionados and frequent exhibitors of his work.

Farnsworth's projects have actually created a little environmental problem in Horn's life. His home serves as a clutter center, tolerated good-naturedly by his wife Elizabeth and his now grown son and daughter. His bedroom and guest room are filled with boxes of mostly mechanical junk that he rescues from the claws of trash collection. His "synesthetic" mind instantaneously envisions techno-garbage as works of art with the potential of sending a moral message in an aesthetically satisfying way. His self-acknowledged unique way of seeing things, for example, makes him visualize the scaffolding-encased University Chapel as a beautiful piece of sculpted art -- playing with light, form, texture and making a social statement of commitment to historic preservation.

"I see geometry, relationships, patterns in everyday objects in a way that many people would never visualize. And then the text to accompany the art just seems to flow," Horn says.

Since he was a child, Horn has been building his own toys made out of bits of wire and small pieces of things lying around the house. As he got older, he put together musical instruments, says Horn, who enjoys making music when he is not Farnsworth making art. Horn claims that he majored in "marching band" when he was an undergraduate at Harvard. When he came to Princeton in 1966, he served for 20 years as the director of the now-defunct Princeton Madrigal Singers.

Adopting Horn's musical talents, Farnsworth has published a song, "The Kuhn and Popper Knee Jerk Philosophy of Science Blues" (a takeoff on the internationally famous, and Princeton rooted, rock band The Blues Traveler) and made a recording, "J. Chester Farnsworth Sings Country and Worstern."

All the extracurricular activities of Farnsworth, however, enhance, rather than detract from, Horn's primary mission in life -- teaching. The humorous aspects of Farnsworth's works of art, accompanied by the serious messages, serve as teaching tools that provoke discussions in his environmental studies course.

"Being Farnsworth is not my number one priority," Horn says. "Teaching is and always will be my number one priority."


September 24, 2001
Vol. 91, No. 3
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In the news
Paying Tribute, seeking understanding
Financial aid improvements help achieve more diversity
Special events mark installation celebration
Building was booming on campus this summer

Trustees grant faculty promotions
Biologist has an artistic alter ego
Princeton Prep Program

Celebration set for Oct. 6
Office is resource for community
Center brings together community service efforts
University shares knowledge through auditing program
By the numbers: Community commitments

Calendar of events
Nassau Notes
News briefs
Research notes

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Editor: Ruth Stevens
Calendar editor: Carolyn Geller
Staff writers: Jennifer Greenstein Altmann, Steven Schultz
Contributing writers:, Stephen Feyer, Pam Hersh, Marilyn Marks
Photographer: Denise Applewhite
Design: Mahlon Lovett, Laurel Masten Cantor
Web edition: Mahlon Lovett