Art, to a Science

a grid of petri dishes show a colorful array of art

Art major and biology professor bridge left and right brains to study the aesthetics of microorganisms

words by Nicolette Good ’07
photos by Anh-Viet Dinh ’15 and submitted by Katie Warford ’20

For those who haven't thought to ask what would happen if you painted with bacteria or colored with microorganisims, you're not alone.

Itís part of what makes the next question so novel: What might you find if you isolate microorganisms for their aesthetic properties, rather than their biochemical traits?

A Trinity art major and biology professor are exercising both sides of their brains to find out.


Warford holds a petri dish to the light

“It occurs to me when my students isolate organisms,” says biology professor Frank Healy, “the organisms exhibit other interesting characteristics or different morphologies, irrespective of their scientific properties.”

In other words, sometimes microorganisms just look plain cool.

The inquiry gained legs when Trinity’s Mellon Initiative, a program that supports scholarship in the arts and humanities, called for project proposals aimed at bridging art and science. 

“I was enthusiastic about trying to blend art and science together, to put them under the same roof,” Healy says.

Healy partnered with Katie Warford ’20, a San Antonio native, for the project. Warford is not only pursuing a degree in art, but she also had limited prior scientific knowledge, which was exactly what Healy wanted. He sought a student whose notions of microbes were not framed by the context of science. Together, the art major and biology professor submitted their proposal, “The Microbial Palette at the Interface of Science and Art.” 

Healy trained Warford to collect natural samples, to isolate them, and to use aseptic sterile technique in the laboratory. The team isolated and cultivated microorganisms for their aesthetic properties alone. 

“Students always encounter contamination,” Healy recalls, “but Katie had an uncanny, meticulous sense of aseptic technique. She’d make a great microbiologist.”

Warford, a member of the Trinity Art Collective, says her art is often inspired by nature, but she often pondered a term she encountered in her studies: organic art. As she understood it, this referred to a method of creation that is spontaneous, and the absence of rigidity, hard lines and acute angles. 

“People associate organic art with curvilinear, smooth, amorphous compositions,” Warford says of a notion she began to challenge, based on her observations in the lab. “I wanted to look at these literally organic forms—microbes—study them, and apply aesthetic principles of art and design to them.”

Healy and Warford collected samples from stagnant water or mud puddles they found on campus or at nearby parks. Back at the lab, the pair diluted the samples, plated them, and waited—sometimes for days, depending on the organism. Once Warford saw growth, she isolated what appeared visually interesting. 

“It interested me and Dr. Healy for different reasons, but both are valid,” Warford says. “Dr. Healy considered what looked morphologically interesting to him, and I thought about what looked aesthetically interesting to me.”

At the Mitchell Lake Audubon Center, for example, they found an iridescent sample, one that changed as you held it to the light to display a spectrum of color. 

“That’s because of its molecular structure,” Warford says. “It has structural color that reflects light at angles differently." 

“Most people think about bacteria having an amorphous circular shape,” Healy adds, “but under a microscope, they have incredibly complex patterns, even iridescent patterns bending light in weird ways.”

four petri dishes are held to the light

To compose a piece of artwork using her microbial palette, Warford understood she had several options. She could confine her piece to one single petri dish or several, and the art could be abstract or representational, like a portrait versus a still life. The choice she pondered most was whether to envision an image and set out to create it in her petri dish, just as an artist might conceive of a human face before they paint it, or to create as she learned, letting the microbes’ appearances inform her artistic direction in real time.

“I really wanted to learn from what I was working with and possibly emulate it in the artwork,” Warford says. “The creation process took shape as my research progressed.”

Working with living media brought unique challenges and constraints to the process. For instance, each microbe grew at a different rate, which made synchronized growth a challenge. Also curious were unexpected interactions between organisms: Some grew differently when they were alone in a dish than when they grew alongside another microbe. And, living things die. 

“These pieces don’t last for long. They’re transient, ephemeral,” Warford says. 

In their final palette, Warford and Healy isolated 25 unique organisms, “like a painters’ set you’d get from a hobby shop,” Warford explains. “Except, it contains microbes.” 

Warford presented a poster on their project at the Trinity University Undergraduate Research Symposium. She held her own as the sole artist among many biology students showcasing their work through poster and oral presentations. 
As Warford says, “Not everything can be explained with just one or the other.”