Art and science collide in ‘Microbial Worlds’

“Microbial Worlds,” an art exhibit with a scientific twist, sought to teach visitors about microbiology.

“I sometimes say that microbes rule the world,” Mary Beth Leigh said. “All other life forms depend on them. They’re the most numerous and most diverse organisms on the planet. They can do things no other organism could do.”

Leigh was one of the organizers for the First Friday event, on Feb. 3. The curator for the event was Annie Duffy, a painter and sculptor.

“I would just want people to experience the wonder of what’s really an invisible world,” Leigh said.


Tamora Petitt, a modern dancer from Brooklyn, NY, performs during the open reception of In a Time of Change: Microbial Worlds at Wells Street Gallery. The soundscape was created for the De:Composition installation by Brooklyn sound designer Ellis Traver. Almost 900 people turned out opening night, a record for the gallery. - Sarah Manriquez / Photo Editor Photo credit: Sarah Manriquez

The exhibition featured art by 14 artists in a variety of forms including sculptures, prints, writing and live dancing. The exhibition focused on the world’s smallest organisms, microbes—bacteria, fungi, protozoa, algae and viruses. The artists spent a total of over 16 months collaborating with scientists to learn about microbes through monthly lectures, lab activities and field trips.

“They basically became students of science,” Leigh said.

The artists used their newfound microbiology knowledge to create their works of art.

“People often think of microbes just as being bad—causing disease,” Leigh said. “We’re also raising awareness of all the good things microbes do … and we’re also bringing attention to their diversity and beauty.”

In total the exhibition there were 872 attendees, not including organizers, staff and artists. The gallery owner David Mollet said he thinks it was an all-time record for a First Friday event at Well Street, according to Leigh.

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The Microbial Worlds included 14 artists and scientists. Annie Duffy, UAF art professor, created a series of bowls made out of paper, ink and acrylic. Duffy's bowls are meant to examine carbon based life. This idea of the unseen, or invisible world has been a longstanding thread throughout her other work. Sarah Manriquez/Photo Editor Photo credit: Sarah Manriquez

One of the works of art included four burlap dresses—three encased in resin and one worn by Tamora Petitt, who danced live at the exhibition. The dresses were part of one of the larger works. They were made by Stephanie Dixon, a costumer and choreographer from Brooklyn, New York.

Dixon and Leigh with other scientists went to a subarctic research station in Finland to study bacteria in the soil. Whilst studying microbes they also started an art project. Dixon made a few burlap dresses and the scientists adorned them with small plants. Dixon and one of the researchers, Mary-Cathrine Leewis, did photo shoots in the tundra, before burying the dresses.

The next year and the year after that they repeated the cycle, leaving the dresses to to the environment and photographing and studying them upon their return. Finally, they coated three of the dresses in resin to create 150-pound sculptures. The dress worn by Petitt for the performance was the one that had degraded the least.

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Stephanie Dixon, a costume designer, choreographer and dancer, heats up the resin-encased dress that she made from burlap and items that she found in the forest such a twigs and leaves. She and her team created the dress as part of an art-science project, danced in the forest with the dresses, buried them for a year, unearthed the dresses and danced in them again. They then studied what happened to the dresses as they spent their time buried. For instance, they were entwined with plant roots and one of the dresses seemed to be eaten slightly. Josh Hartman/ Staff Writer Photo credit: Josh Hartman

Once the dresses were at the exhibit they were analyzed to see what kinds of DNA could be found in the dress.

The “In A Time For Change” program put on this event, which is the fifth large art-science project that they have done since they were founded in 2008. Mary Beth Leigh is the director and co-founder of the program. The goal of the program is to get scientists and artists to work together and produce things for the public, Leigh said.

“I think that [collaboration between science, humanities and art] can make a difference because there are a lot of complex problems in the world that we’re going to need more than just science to solve,” Leigh said. “Science is important for providing evidence and facts … but, it really requires engagement with society in order to make decisions.”

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(left to right) Stephanie Dixon, Tamora Petitt and Brendan Hendry work on smoothing out the resin encasing a burlap dress made by Dixon. Three resin-coated dresses are part of the display for the Microbial Worlds art exhibition. The dresses are in various states of decay and have been examined to determine the kinds of bacteria inhabiting them. Josh Hartman/ Staff Writer Photo credit: Josh Hartman

The exhibit will continue to be on display at the Well Street Art Company until Feb. 27.

The exhibition was funded by the National Science Foundation, The Bonanza Creek LTER program, the Institute of Arctic Biology, The CITE Fellows program, Toolik Field Station, the Alaska IDeA Network, the Art Department and BLaST among others.

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