Using chisels, blowtorches and cameras, three UBC researchers turn their passion for science into objets d’art
Erick James spends a good deal of time sifting through the guts of termites, trying to understand how the tiny protists living inside interact.
“When you dissect a termite and you look at its gut content under the microscope it’s a churning mass of protists,” says James, a microbiologist with the Keeling Lab at UBC. “I often wonder if the termites know what’s in them, if they have a stomachache. Just the sheer number of the protists that live in a termite’s gut is fascinating.”
It’s a fascination that James turns into art — by forging giant metal sculptures of the tiny protists.
James became interested in metalwork after working at a friend’s truck shop, before embarking on a research career at UBC. Seven years ago James took a sabbatical and studied metalworking at Selkirk College’s Kootenay School of the Arts. When he returned to UBC he began creating giant sculptures of the microbes he was studying, beginning with a metal dinoflagellate.
James’s sculptures are a way for the public to experience the wonders he observes in the lab, that secret world others can’t witness. We are, he says, in the age of discovery of the microbe.
“The organisms that are studied the most are the ones that cause disease. But that’s this tiny slice of the microbial world. Art may be a way to tell people that there are other types of microbes, like gut microbes, which are helpful.”
Beauty and the microbes
“This is kelp. This is the microorganism that caused the Irish potato famine. And this one is called a ciliate,” says Patrick Keeling as he points at different necklaces, tiny little patterns of dots differentiating them.
Keeling shares James’s fascination with microbes, but instead of blowtorches, uses carving tools to reproduce the world he glimpses in the laboratory. Five years ago the UBC microbiologist decided he wanted to represent Darwin’s famous tree of life using wood.
Darwin’s original drawing of the tree contains the phrase ‘I think’ atop his notes. Keeling translated the phrase into binary code and rendered the code in wood, carving a piece of jewelry.
“I was interested in making things with a secret message,” he explains.
Keeling began crafting jewelry for his wife and friends, drawing inspiration from seemingly odd subjects, such as parasites. These aren’t organisms that most people would describe as beautiful, but their cells, magnified, offer repetitive patterns and interesting shapes.
The more Keeling worked on wood pieces, the more he struggled trying to represent the natural world in more abstract forms, rather than naturalistic. He came upon the idea of rendering DNA barcodes as necklaces or using morse code to engrave a piece of wood. Now he employs a process akin to nerikomi ceramics, creating wooden rods whose multi-coloured patterns can only be viewed when they are sliced apart.
Keeling and James have also printed black and white, magnified images of organisms that they study in the lab.
“When we moved into UBC’s Biological Sciences building I saw these red walls and I thought it looked like an art gallery. Erick and I started buying all the gaudy, gold frames we could find at garage sales and framing our microbes. It’s an interesting juxtaposition of things that you think are separate.”
The images, electron micrographs taken by their colleague Kevin J. Carpenter, along with Keeling’s woodwork and James’s sculptures, were exhibited at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum last year and will go on display at Science World this September.
“It is great to have a chance to show the artistic side of the microbial world, and it would be even better to see something like this in a dedicated art space like the Vancouver Art Gallery to expose even more non-scientists to this world,” Keeling muses.
Seaweeds, not microbes, fascinate Bridgette Clarkston, a biologist and recent teaching and learning fellow with the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative at UBC. Six years ago she began taking pictures of organisms she encountered during her research investigating the biodiversity of red seaweeds in Canada.
“A lot of people think that seaweeds are slimy and gross, but that’s because we see them when they wash up dead on the beach,” she explains. “I love giving people the opportunity to see seaweeds as the living, vibrant, beautiful organisms they are through my photographs.”
When Clarkston started taking photographs she knew little about the visual arts. At first she worried about conveying the natural world accurately, for example, correctly identifying a mushroom. Her anxiety has diminished through the years as she developed her photography skills. Clarkston keeps an extensive Flickr gallery chronicling the many seaweeds, sea stars, flowers, crabs, birds and other critters encountered during her travels. Her efforts have been recognized: A photo of kelp won first prize in Nature Vancouver’s annual photography contest, and a close-up photo of mushrooms (taken with her cell phone) was included in the April issue of Canadian Geographic.
“It’s important for all citizens to feel involved in science,” says Clarkston. “Everyone needs to have some scientific understanding to make everyday decisions. If you can have some connection, especially through art, you can engender some sense of ownership of science.”
The great divide
Science and art often occupy divergent ends of our cultural spectrum. Yet they have often touched. Artists have long painted and drawn samples of botanical and zoological specimens. Automatons that entertained European Victorian elites inspired Charles Babbage to build his differential engine. Physicist David Bohm corresponded with abstract artist Charles Biederman and their musings on human perception inspired both.
“Any outreach activity that can get people interested in a scientific topic, whether it’s just taking pictures and saying ‘Look at what lives in a cockroach’s gut!’ is positive,” says Keeling. “Science isn’t dry and boring and we need to communicate that.”
Conversely, art does not have to be a convoluted, inaccessible arena that scientists can never hope to reach.
“You don’t need to know everything,” says Clarkston. “I’m pretty late in developing an interest in photography, so you can get into it at any time and explore. I encourage everybody with an interest in exploring science through art to do so. There are people who think they are these separate entities and I don’t agree.”
Scientists and artists are uniting. The UBC Fashioning Cancer project is a collaboration between costume designers and researchers using images of cancer cells as inspiration for dresses. The Beaty Biodiversity museum regularly exhibits art on its walls, such as the oil paintings of Karen Yurkovich which are inspired by Beaty Herbarium specimens.
“People love the aesthetic of biology, and we should take advantage of that,” says Keeling. “I got into biology because I like looking at organisms, at their complexity. It is their beauty that keeps me interested.”
Erick James maintains a website with photos of his artwork. His latest project involves creating 20 origami birds out of steel for public display in Richmond. He Tweets @sprocketsncogs.
Visit the webpage of the Keeling Lab to see what some microbiologists at UBC are up to. Kevin Carpenter, who took many of the photos of microbes that adorn the lab’s walls, keeps a website you should also check out.