Sora Journal

Inside Expeditions: Explore Microscopic Art

By Briney Burley

Microscopic Art with Amberleigh

The biological sciences and the arts have a long history of not only inspiring each other’s disciplines but merging the two in practice. For example, taxonomists developed their own genre of visual art with distinctive techniques to catalog flora and fauna. Biology as a discipline influenced the formation of Art Nouveau. And in the classroom, one of the best ways to learn about biological structures is to draw them. That’s part of the inspiration behind Sora faculty member Amberleigh Ray’s expedition titled “Microscopic Art,” which was designed to be a deep dive into the life of a cell. The expedition tasked students with visually recreating a eukaryotic cell (the type of cells found in animals), and gave students even more creative license to allow science to influence the art.

What the students produced is truly fun to see. Students demonstrated their understanding of cellular functions by creating their own visual models. One project looked like it could be the setting of a Pixar movie. Another looks as if it came from an architect’s office.

But before getting to this point, students spent the first few weeks learning about cell structures and types, the basic role and function of cell parts, and photosynthesis. Amberleigh also provided scientifically inspired works of art as examples for the students to begin planning their projects. To further inspire the students, she also invited professional artist and professor Yuko Oda to attend one of the sessions in order to give guidance, feedback, and lend her expertise to the students.

An artist of multiple media including 3D printed sculpture, installation, and animation, Yuko explained her process as an artist to the class. Each student presented their work-in-progress, explaining the reason for choosing that particular art medium, and asked questions about problems they had encountered. Student projects were very diverse in terms of design, materials, process, and style. One student had created a fictitious city representing the various parts of a cell with the nucleus being a bubbled hub where the elite lived, information highways, and lysosome buildings. Another student used different colors of clay to differentiate between the different cell parts as well as bring to life the life of a cell in 3D. A third student drew an architecturally inspired rendering of a cell using math to create perspective and dimension and demonstrated how the complex design of a cell makes its functioning possible.

Yuko offered advice on using various materials such as a particular type of paper for watercolor paint or how one student could create a mold using clay instead of another material that might fall apart. Her expertise and experience with drawing, sculpture, and other mediums not only gave the students support in their projects but an understanding of the life of a professional artist should they decide to pursue that type of career. 

Through working on the detail and minute differences of parts of the cell, students had to understand the complexity of each component in order to recreate it. They expressed gratitude for Yuko’s advice and feedback, leading to certain choices they wouldn’t have made otherwise, and were just happy to hear about an outsider’s profession and their journey through art and self-expression.