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Angela Gonzales and Fermilab–pride, purpose, and play


In late October, 80-y.o.  Angela Gonzales passed away. She was employee number 11 of National Accelerator Laboratory (now Fermilab). At the beginning of her 31-year career with the lab, she and founding director, Robert Wilson, shared a vision of an aesthetically pleasing as well as utilitarian Department of Energy research facility. Dr. Wilson himself helped design the centerpiece of the site, Wilson Hall, as a modern interpretation of the uplifting space of a great medieval cathedral. They wanted the new lab to convey a sense of official ambition as well as providing an enjoyable environment for workers and visitors. They did a great job.  Fermilab is a jewel of the prairie.

Evolution of the Fermilab logo with the lab's palette. via
Evolution of the Fermilab logo with the lab’s palette. via

Angela Gonzales developed the branding for the nascent lab. The Fermilab logo was inspired by the dipole-quadripole magnets of the accelerator. The chunky curves of the design are also consistent with the modern, symmetric curves of Wilson Hall. Angela also selected 12 colors to be the lab’s official palette and are still in use today. As you would expect, these colors are used on all Fermilab publications. It comes as a surprise, though, that these colors spilled off the press and onto the structures of the lab itself.  Generic, utilitarian structures and interiors were given fun pops of sanctioned colors to spice things up. For example, Angela had a row of tanks each painted different colors. They were transformed from an eyesore into a delightful feature with a color gradient. Fermilab still employs this trick across the site. Instant fun. By painting most of the spread-out and disparate buildings with combinations of the same 12 colors you get a sense of continuity and cohesion. For visiting taxpayers these enhancements are more likely to give an impression that cool, futuristic things worthy of national pride and massive budgets are happening inside those buildings. Without the exterior-unifying details these structures would be less attractive–perhaps intimidating–and best forgotten.

Most dock doors have these big circles on them. photo:
Most dock doors have these big circles on them. photo:
Left: Gradient of colored boxes. Right: Polychrome capacitor tree. photo: J. Mars
Left: Gradient of colored boxes. Right: Polychrome capacitor tree. photo: J. Mars

Fermilab has a thriving art exhibition space designed to celebrate the complementary relationship between art and science. In the fall of 1996, Angela Gonzales curated the exhibit, VIRTU: Homage to Physics Artisans at Fermilab. The show was experimental since it presented the handicraft and design of scientific instruments for their aesthetic appeal. The show was so popular it was extended and then traveled to Columbia College in Chicago. The idea is engaging. A viewer approached the exhibit and because it was titled as “55” or “3” you had to appreciate the piece first on a visual level. Viewers were forced to appreciate it for its formal design and aesthetic qualities. Some people might have then moved on to an appreciation of how the piece was machined or fabricated and marvel at the technical skill needed to produce it. Then the real curiosity kicked in, “What is it?” This is when the viewer would search through the catalog for an explanation of what the instrument was made to do. The art in this show isn’t intrinsic in each piece. Each piece is a fascinating work of design–form following function. The art in this show is in the curation. Angela Gonzales carefully orchestrated the experience of the exhibition to communicate a subjective sense of awe and appreciation for the design and creation of scientific instruments. There are at least one or two of these instruments still mounted on displays in Wilson Hall. There was a write up with photos on the exhibit in Fermilab News January 24, 1997. I have a pdf that is too large to upload to MAL. I can send to anyone who wants to see it.

In addition to Gonzales’ work branding and enhancing Fermilab’s presence, she drew elaborate black and white illustrations for conference programs, annual reports, and other bound publications. They go above and beyond what the cover of a scientific publication requires. They are at times cinematic and, other times, drive you to distraction with playful detail. Gonzales’ illustrations are also time capsules into the lab’s experimental progress and triumphs. From the illustrations I’ve seen, I haven’t noticed any representation of the Higgs boson. However, there are references to the upsilon, top quark, and muon neutrino. These are great. Let’s dig in:

Cover of "Proceedings of the XVI International Conference on High Energy Physics" (September 6-13, 1972; Chicago and Batavia, IL), vol. 3
Cover of “Proceedings of the XVI International Conference on High Energy Physics” (September 6-13, 1972; Chicago and Batavia, IL), vol. 3

This is a dazzling airplane POV of Fermilab peeking through a pattern of fluffy clouds. Gonzales drew the patchwork of surrounding prairie and farmlands. Particle tracks adorn the sky above a hazy horizon. (I think I can see my house from here.)

Cover of "Proceedings of the XVI International Conference on High Energy Physics" (September 6-13, 1972; Chicago and Batavia, IL), vol. 2
Cover of “Proceedings of the XVI International Conference on High Energy Physics” (September 6-13, 1972; Chicago and Batavia, IL), vol. 2

Imagine getting bored during a lull in this conference and escaping temporarily into this drawing. I can almost hear the buzzing of the insects in this one. The illustration shows a nocturnal landscape of Wilson Hall and its surrounding prairie. In the sky in the place of stars Angela Gonzales renders simple tinker-toy Feynman diagrams. Look closely. In the prairie grasses in the place of grasshoppers and crickets are more surprises. If you need to see more detail ask me for a link to a ginormous file in the comments. Then print it out and tell me the artist hid something else in there I missed.

Cover of “1976 Summer Study: Utilization of the Energy Doubler/Saver” vol. 1

If I understand my Fermilab history correctly, 1976 was a time of rapid improvements in accelerations up the gigaelectronvolt (GeV) scale until it became necessary to entertain the possibility of reaching a higher energy scale, the teraelectronvolt (TeV). The illustration is another airplane POV cinematic rendering of the lab site and surrounding terrain. I don’t understand the lasso shape Gonzales chose to use floating above the main ring with what appears to be a possible luminous collision right below the haloed full moon. I see it as a visionary, poetic interpretation of the underground accelerator at work. I’d love to hear some more interpretations of this piece especially from physicists.

(Edited to add) Valerie Higgins archivist at Fermilab suggests,

“I think the lasso design on the 1976 Summer Study represents the planned collider (The Energy Doubler, aka the Energy Saver, aka the Tevatron). The Tevatron accelerated protons and antiprotons in opposite directions, and they traveled around the ring many times picking up speed before being brought together in a collision. My guess is that the lasso in the air and the ring on the ground represent the two beams. The burst of light appears above the area where CDF, the Collider Detector Facility, was located, so I’m pretty sure it represents the proton/anti-proton collisions.”

SGonzalesReflectedLandscapeThis one is timeless, gorgeous, and needs no explanation.

Front cover of 1982 Fermilab annual report
Front cover of 1982 Fermilab annual report

The cover for 1982 Fermilab annual report has a rigid abstract composition on top of a background field of whizzing particle tracks. It looks like she’s playing with the idea of a Roman arch as a metaphor for the wedge shapes of the CDF detector…mmmaaybe? Then there’s the aqueduct. Maybe she’s celebrating the cutting edge marvel of engineering, the aqueduct, with the best of the 20th century.  Although the CDF doesn’t support the literal weight of an immense stone structure, it was under pressure to deliver much anticipated experimental results.  As always, if you have your own interpretation of this cover we want to read it in the comments.)

Front cover of 1985 Fermilab annual report
Front cover of 1985 Fermilab annual report

Curioser and curioser. The 1985 Fermilab annual report has a lot of cryptic elements that give it the look of a mysterious engraving from a Dan Brown novel. Highlights–ancient-looking mythical creatures sitting in profile on the roof. On the apex of the roof one of the creatures is sticking his long proboscis in the other’s ear. Pan down–proton/antiproton on yin/yang on particle spray. Further down we see a stoa with what looks like two teams of five late roman classical marble busts that are about to face off. By the way, these busts all have two or three letters showing of an inscription on their bases. Could these be peoples’ initials? (I checked through the annual. Probably not.)

Edited to add: Valerie Higgins comes to the rescue again saying they might indeed be initials:

“Actually, I think you’re right about the letters under the busts on the 1985 annual report being initials of people at Fermilab. The faces of the statues don’t look like anyone in particular, but the only figure without a beard has “HE” on it, which could refer to Helen Edwards, one of the few women physicists at Fermilab at that time. The one with DY on it might represent Don Young, another physicist at the time. None of the other initials ring a bell, though. DOE = Department of Energy, URA = Universities Research Association.”

A pendulum swings above a circular diagram in the floor to about the five o’clock position. On the riser leading up to the stoa the artist inscribed the names of university collaborators. The circular diagram is filled in three of its four quarters with the different neutrinos and types of quarks and their “colors.” The last quarter just has a giant question mark in it. I get the feeling 1985 was a time of uncertainty and contentious debate at Fermilab. Most likely, the physicists who looked this over at the time had a lot of fun with it.

Front cover of "High Energy Particle Interactions in Large Targets. Volume 1: Hadronic Cascades, Shielding, Energy Deposition"
Front cover of “High Energy Particle Interactions in Large Targets. Volume 1: Hadronic Cascades, Shielding, Energy Deposition”

You don’t expect art work this capricious to wind up on the cover of a scientific publication. It’s not a serious illustration about a technical subject and that’s probably why Angela Gonzales was so successful at what she did. This is a delightfully wicked boschian fugue. An aerial view of Fermilab is getting cooked up in an enormous cauldron on top of a roaring fire. Surrounding the cauldron are five incubus or demon-like characters attending to their brew. I give Gonzales credit here for not defaulting to the witch trope and opting instead for these fantastical monsters. Two scary bats are flapping over the imps’ heads. A lavishly ornamental rose window looms in the background. There are tiny spiders in some of the window’s medallions. I’m guessing quark stew is on the menu.

Front cover of 1987 Fermilab annual report
Front cover of 1987 Fermilab annual report

Plenty of twenty. Fermilab was celebrating their 20th anniversary. This is especially awesome for the magic square.

Front cover of 1988 Fermilab annual report
Front cover of 1988 Fermilab annual report

This triumphal arch on the cover of Fermilab’s 1988 annual report is concentrated with ornamental detail. I wish I had an explanation from the artist about the doubled Fermilab in the center. Perhaps she is using ambiguity as a tool to communicate more than one state. The piece overall is a nocturnal landscape but the inset in the center is illuminated with daylight. The two Wilson Halls, one superimposed above the other, (or are they side by side?) exist in daylight and sunlight. The art work is peppered with symbols of Fermilab’s accomplishments. The winged symbol for muon neutrinos are zipping through the sky at the top. The symbols for proton and antiproton are the finials on the top of the triumphal arch flanking a medallion showing particle collision tracks. Those look to be mirror-image double-headed beasts supporting the lintel. Between them the arch is adorned with a medallion commemorating the muon neutrino. Leon Lederman, the director of Fermilab, was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on muon neutrinos in 1988. The wedge stones of the arch are inscribed with symbols of only four types of quarks arranged as a palindrome. The top quark was finally experimentally confirmed at Fermilab in 1995. The 3D symbol beneath the arch is the upsilon meson that was discovered by a team in the 70’s led by Leon Lederman at Fermilab. All of this imagery is layered over a starry sky with a lovely spiral galaxy framed by the arch.

Sometimes Angela Gonzales did a painted version of an illustration. So far I’ve only seen this one example:


photo: Valerie Higgins
photo: Valerie Higgins of Fermilab Archives

Her daughter, Olivia Lahs-Gonzales, has a web site with some of Angela Gonzales’ paintings, early charcoal drawings, and a biography.

Graphic artist, illustrator, site planner, painter, curator, Angela Gonazles wore a lot of hats over her 31 years at Fermilab.  If you have the chance to visit Fermilab for a lecture, art event, or open house remember to keep your eyes open for playful color painted on the prairie.

New IARC building. photo:
New IARC building. photo:

The biographical information came from these sources:


Thanks to Valerie Higgins, Fermilab Archivist/Historian and Olivia Lahs-Gonzales, the artist’s daughter, for their help in providing information and images about Angela Gonzales’ admirable career.

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  1. So many fascinating and gorgeous illustrations! What a wonderful collection.

    In the 1987 cover I recognize most of the “twenties”, but the two fractions near the bottom left leave me puzzled.  I suppose the ⅕ is because 20 is ⅕ of a century, but what does ⅓´ mean?


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