Statement: Swarms in a Lab                                                                     06/01/2015

The first time I saw a foraminifera was from a drawing: a scientific illustration of its fossil. The creature I will never see alive, its form drawn, was a fragile elegant spiral. The story the drawing told of primitive life on earth was almost instantaneous; a quiet floating existence across oceans that once covered modern continents. From this point on wonder, through visual representation, was clearly affixed to science in my mind. This moment has defined my art practice as drawing based, in a poetic search of form from the physical world and the story it can tell.

Currently, biological processes, patterns in nature, and collective behavior in animals influence my work. I morph together these ideas and images in drawings following the formalist rules of art.

“Swarms in a Lab” was a commissioned wall drawing project for the Ursell laboratory in the Physics department at the University of Oregon. The ideas for the project and development of the visual language for the wall drawings was based on the work being done in this laboratory: the study of collective swarming behavior in bacteria. Through the trading of images, videos, and a few collaborative white board drawings, Tristan Ursell, the professor of the lab, and myself agreed upon three wall drawings each representing a different system of collective behavior.

“Branching Motility” was based off the form of Paenibacillus vortex, a bacterial colony with a bright center and spiraling arms. It uses chemotactic signaling to collectively forage for food. The lines in the wall drawing represent the highways of the foraging bacteria and the many colored dots the densely packed colonies.

“Murmuration” visualizes, though repeated simple gestural lines and dots, the collective behavior of a murmuration, or flocking mechanism of bacteria and starlings. The dots at the tip of the teardrop-like shapes provide direction and flow toward the center. The edges being spun out into vortices can be found in the swirling of fluids and bacteria.

“Slime Branchlet” is based on the lattice-like structure of slime molds. The structure flows from the center by main branches. The form then bubbles out to cells and then packs closely together again creating an undulating system.

I choose to hand draw these wall drawings by using acrylic paint makers. The hand is of interest to me as it is the discoverer and creator, as Focillon notes, “Held against the wind, spread out and separated like a frond, they urged him on to an understanding…” The idea that hands both discover and create an urgency to understand carries weight for me in both art and science.

Microbiology experimentation consists of sets of repetitive hand gestures, such as plate streaking and colony counting, to hopefully further scientific understanding. It seemed fitting that wall drawings (instead of a painted mural, vinyl stickers, photos, etc.) should be a part of the laboratory space, as a drawing is a culminated process of repetitive gestures that also hopefully leads to an understanding.

The wall drawings were created inside the laboratory and by the more heavily trafficked workstations for the graduate students of the laboratory. It is my hope that the students working in these areas will be continually inspired to wonder.