Scientist-turned-artist Larry Lagin at Bothwell Open Studios (Photo/Vanessa Thomas)
Scientist-turned-artist Larry Lagin at Bothwell Open Studios (Photo/Vanessa Thomas)

Nuclear scientist-turned-artist explores Holocaust

Larry Lagin describes working on nuclear fusion like “trying to create a star on Earth.” But when the scientist and engineer left his job in 2014, he knew he was going to be working on creating something else.

“I retired from Livermore Lab in 2014,” Lagin said. “And when I retired I decided I was going to get back into doing art.”

Now the Pleasanton resident is showing a series of 14 paintings on the Holocaust at the Bothwell Arts Center in Livermore, where he is a resident artist. The centerpiece of a three-day audiovisual exhibition, the paintings are based on photographs of children from the collection of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Art has always been important to Lagin, 68, who has been sketching and drawing his whole life.

“In art, I kind of let myself go,” he said. “I’m more free with my brushstrokes and I’m not precise.”

It’s a change from his professional career. Lagin said he “fell in love” with nuclear fusion when he worked at Princeton University on a project there, then came west in 1995 to work on the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s laser system, which creates temperatures of more than 180 million degrees Fahrenheit and pressures that exceed 100 billion times Earth’s atmosphere, all focused on a tiny point to create what the lab calls a “miniature star.”

“A young boy with his hands up” by Larry Lagin, based on U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum photo #26543A
“A young boy with his hands up” by Larry Lagin, based on U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum photo #26543A

Lagin said both art and science have a discovery process that he enjoys.

“A lot of people say art and science aren’t related,” he said. “But I found them very closely related.”

After a long and distinguished career in science, now it’s the artistic side of him that’s getting more attention. After his retirement, he began taking art classes again, moving from drawing to painting and completing a certification program through UC Berkeley Extension.

He was inspired to create the series that will be shown at the Bothwell after a visit to San Francisco’s Legion of Honor and its Holocaust Memorial sculpture, a stark vista of sprawled bodies and barbed wire. Lagin sketched it, then eventually moved on to painting photographs from the U.S. Holocaust museum’s website. The photos of children wearing yellow stars drew him, not the least because he’s a parent himself.

“The stars looked so big,” he said. “And the kids were so little.”

The 14 paintings, none of which are for sale, will be shown for three days, starting at 9 a.m. on Sunday, April 28, at the arts center where Lagin has a studio. There will be an opening reception from 6-8 p.m. that day, as well.

To give visitors even more, he’s received permission to use educational audio and video — eyewitness testimonies to the Holocaust, according to the Bothwell website — from the USHMM and the USC Shoah Foundation.

Lagin hopes that local schools and synagogues will organize field trips for middle- and high-school students to visit the show (because of the nature of the work, the gallery is not recommending it for anyone under 13), because he feels that too few students really know enough about the war years. Even he was shocked to find out more about the fate of children during that time. “Of the 6 million Jews that were murdered in the Holocaust, 1½ million were children,” he said. “I was really unaware of that.”

It’s that kind of thing he wants student visitors to the exhibit to know. A 6-8 p.m. showing on the second day of the exhibit, Monday, April 29, which also will include a reception, is specially designed for students and their parents.

The bottom line, Lagin said, it that the paintings are meant to educate and to commemorate, not to shock.

“It became almost like a labor of love in doing the series for me,” he said. “I felt that it had to be done. I felt almost like these people were calling out to me, that someone had to tell their story.”

Holocaust Memorial Exhibit.” 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, April 28 through Tuesday, April 30. Opening reception 6-8 pm. April 28; students invited 6-8 p.m. April 29. At Bothwell Arts Center, 2466 8th St., Livermore. Free.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.