Biology inspired aesthetics

Most people would either consider themselves to be art-minded or science-minded but, the truth is, the two are not mutually exclusive.

The Cellular/Molecular exhibition, at the Esther Klein Gallery, displays how the two can mesh together beautifully. Since the advent of florescent markers, biology has been lit up with neon colored images and modern staining assays allow us to visualize what we could only imagine in past decades. Even before these technologies, scientists had to moonlight as artists to express the observations they could describe only with words. For example, Charles Darwin often used pencil drawings to explore the physical differences and similarities in animals.

The way that technology has advanced, quickly and accessibly, to the general public through the Internet, has shifted the way we think about science and scientists. Our generation’s interest in science has spawned a pop-science movement. Being science-minded and intelligent is no longer reserved for nerds. Today it is the technology illiterate individuals that are the outcasts, and the well-adjusted popular kids lock themselves in their rooms to communicate through iPhones. This idea is epitomized by the recently invented social niche, the “brogineer”—an engineer or engineering major who is also athletic, not socially awkward, and perhaps a bit of a party animal.

The Cellular/Molecular exhibition appeals to the pop-science movement by connecting the two disciplines in a way that won’t make your head hurt. Instead of actual scientific visualizations, most of the pieces of art in the exhibition are biology inspired and abstract. The curator of the exhibition, Gaby Heit, says that the exhibition’s theme is appealing because cells and molecules represent “the smallest element of what could be beautiful.” But what is more interesting to her is our “natural inclination to make these very organic forms” intentionally and accidentally. In fact, most of the artists had no idea that their works qualified as being biology inspired until Heit pointed it out to them.

But some of the other artists from the exhibition were well aware of what they were doing, such as Angela McQuillan, who has as an academic background in biology and currently works in a lab. McQuillan’s parents were scientists, so in her youth she was drawn to biology, particularly plants and how they grow. But after getting her B.S. she decided to attend graduate school for art. She says that she was always interested in art, but it was a long transition. In the end she was able to justify it by saying art was “another way of observing my surroundings and interpreting them.” McQuillan says that her inspiration is never just one assay, protein, or metabolic pathway, but she is attracted to nature’s repetitive patterns.

Want to see more artistic science? Then visit Breadboard’s Esther Klein Gallery at University City Science Center. The exhibition runs through June 9.