Coronavirus and art in a petri dish

Meet three American artists who create art inspired from virus structures and cellular reactions to allay fear and increase awareness about microbial science

March 27, 2020 04:43 pm | Updated March 29, 2020 07:49 am IST

A deadly virus is making its way around the world, spreading sickness and death. But not everyone is fearful; some artists are looking at Covid-19 and other viruses (and bacteria) with childlike curiosity. “Fear is never a great place to start a conversation,” says Brooklyn-based Laura Splan, whose works include a series of lace doilies depicting the structures of deadly viruses, including those responsible for past global epidemics such as SARS (2003) and MERS (2012). “I hope my work compels people to unpack their complex relationships with the biological world,” she adds.

San Francisco artist Klari Reis’ paintings on petri dishes are inspired by the imagery of how cells react to drugs, while California artist-scientist David Goodsell’s watercolours of molecular structures are a result of hours of research in his lab. His recent rendering of the coronavirus — released on Twitter for his 7,000+ followers — is both wall decor and study material. Though it looks like a spring flower, it includes in great detail the proteins, membrane and mucus in the respiratory tract that the virus interacts with, showing that it is “just little collections of molecules that can be understood and… fought”.

David Goodsell

Putting a face on foes

“My goal with this painting, and with previous portraits of life-threatening viruses, is to demystify and put a face on these submicroscopic foes,” says Goodsell. His illustrations are so aesthetically pleasing that, despite depicting deadly viruses, they are used in fabric designs and are part of private collections and exhibitions. Recently, a colouring book version of his coronavirus painting was made available for free to download, on RCSB PDB (a member of World Wide Protein Data Bank) website.

A scientist who does research on structural molecular biology, Goodsell’s inclination towards applying artwork to science began when he was in graduate school in the 80s, developing computer graphics methods to display and analyse the results of his experiments. He began the paintings because the cellular scenes were “too complex to be done with computer graphics [back then]”.

He has illustrated structures of HIV, Ebola and E.Coli among other viruses. Each painting, done on a 300 lb watercolour paper, takes 10 to 20 hours to complete. “I spend a comparable amount of time researching the subject so that it is as scientifically accurate as possible,” says Goodsell, who is also a professor of Computational Biology at Scripps Research Institute, California.

For painting the coronavirus, he used the available structural data of SARS virus from scientific publications. The Covid 19 virus belongs to the family of coronaviruses that include SARS and MERS, and is structurally similar to them.

Klari Reis

Action and reaction

Reis was in her 20s, when she was diagnosed with Crohn’s, an inflammatory bowel disease. She had just moved to the UK to study art, after ending her career as an architect in San Francisco. When she realised that one of the medicines that she was allergic to in the US was being sold under a different name in the UK, she decided to pause and study how her cells reacted to pharmaceuticals.

“Under the microscope, looking at my own cells, I remember being blown away by the colours,” she says. She recalls seeing the cell structures highlighted by Hoechst stains (blue fluorescent dyes) against a black background. Inspired by the cellular movements and reactions, she began depicting them in her paintings.

She mixes coloured powder and dyes with epoxy resin, usually used for flooring, to create a gooey paint that she applies on petri dishes. “It takes me a couple of weeks to complete a painting, I work on about a dozen at a time,” says Reis, whose works are housed in Microsoft Research Ltd in London, Royal Caribbean Cruise lines, Morgan Stanley building in NYC, among others. Klari has been posting one petri dish painting a day on her blog The Daily Dish, since 2013.

Laura Splan

Turning fear to wonder

In 2004, soon after the SARS epidemic, Splan brought out a series of works called Doilies . Traditionally used to protect surfaces of furniture or flatware, their designs are inspired from nature. Splan’s doilies were inspired from the structure of viruses such as SARS, HIV, Influenza, Herpes and Hepadna.

The situation back then was similar to what it is now; though the number of people infected by Covid 19 today has far surpassed that by SARS. Photos of people wearing protective masks and microbial imagery consumed the media, bringing with them a sense of fear, she recalls. “Conflating the traditional radial doily form with a deadly virus was an attempt to create a situation in which the viewer could transpose a state of wonder on to the very structure of the virus which they feared,” she says.

At present, Splan, who has a Bachelors in Studio Art, is working on a project that involves dyeing the wool of laboratory llamas (which are used to produce antibodies for human drugs) with genetically manipulated E. coli bacteria. “I am experimenting with getting the bacteria to express green, blue and purple pigment,” she says.

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