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Beaded Viruses and Geology-Inspired Paintings Show the Art in Science
"T—but not for two"
[Artwork courtesy of and copyright 2008 by Bentley A Fane]
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Finding herself an empty-nester with a well-established research lab in 2000, Holly Wichman used some of her new found time to pursue an artistic activity that paralleled her research. The virologist began beading small sculptures in the shapes and structures of viruses that she studies in her lab. Wichman's beaded viruses along with artworks by two other scientists will be displayed at the AAAS Gallery starting 16 June.
"We are excited that AAAS can exhibit scientists from so many different disciplines who find art in their science," said Virginia Stern, director of the AAAS Art of Science and Technology program which was established in 1985 to showcase art about science, art by scientists, or art that employs a new or original technology or technique. The new exhibit runs until 5 September with a public reception Tuesday 17 June from 5:30-7:30 p.m.
"Doing this kind of art is very meditative—it's a lot of the repetitive beading," said Wichman, a professor at the University of Idaho in Moscow. "When I'm doing that part of the work, I can really think about my work. My mind is free to wander."
Nearly 20 virus-inspired sculptures made of beads will be part of the exhibit, called "Crystal Structures: Viruses in Glass." The virus family Microviridae, which Wichman studies in her lab, inspired the work "Purple Haze," a sphere three-and-a-half inches wide made of purple seed bead clusters connected by delicate straw-like bugle beads.
Wichman's beaded viruses are not simply things she sees in her studies of the evolution of viruses. One of her works is a beaded ballerina with pink and green Swarovski crystal beaded headdress in the structure of a virus. "Prima Ballerina" dances upon six legs of bone pipe beads.
A six legged ballerina? The legs signify a type of virus with six leg-like tail fibers, called tailed bacteriophage. "I figure if you can do good ballet with two legs then you can do really good ballet with six legs," Wichman said.
Wichman's pieces in the AAAS exhibit will be shown with those by Bentley Fane, a professor at the University of Arizona. Fane began beading in 2006 when he came to Wichman's lab for a sabbatical. The two scientists study the same virus family, and Fane planned to spend two months of his sabbatical learning new lab techniques. He ended up learning how to bead as well.
"He sort of went crazy with it," Wichman said. Fane, who calls himself an idiot-savant when it comes to beading, strung together a series of virus structures based on icosahedral virus structures of increasing complex configurations. Icosahedral structures differ in complexity, from the simple T = 1 configuration to the more elaborate configurations. In "T—but not for two" Fane made beaded representations of eight of the configurations, starting with T = 1 and ending with T = 16, which is a Herpes virus capsid that took 1920 seed beads to complete.
Wichman and Fane noticed how certain configurations are easier to bead, that they hold together more easily and don't collapse. The real-life viral counterparts tend to be more common in nature than the configurations that tend to collapse when beaded.
"Things that we see commonly in nature tend to be the things that are more stable when you bead them," Wichman said. "From this we should be able to make predictions about what should be common in nature and won't be common in nature."
One of the more stable beaded viruses T = 13, which took 1560 beads and 70 feet of thread, is exceptionally strong.
"You can grab it in your hand and squeeze it and it won't collapse," Fane said. In contrast, his beaded representations of T = 9 and T = 12, which are fairly uncommon in nature, would collapse under pressure. "I really wondered if these shapes are inherently less stable and maybe that's why evolution has selected against them," Fane said.
The virologists use the exhibit to teach the public about viruses. "Some of our big health threats are viruses," said Wichman, citing HIV and bird flu as examples. "People are happy to talk to someone who can answer simple questions. It's an easy way to look at viruses and learn a little painlessly."
In addition to learning about viruses, visitors to the AAAS gallery will also get some impromptu geology lessons. Twenty-one paintings will be part of the exhibit "Earth Science Messages: Paintings on Wood" which will be shown simultaneously with Wichman and Fane's "Crystal Structures" exhibit.
[Artwork courtesy of and copyright 2008 Susan Eriksson]
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Colorado-based geologist Susan Eriksson started doing art in the mid-1990s and recently began painting with acrylics on wood. As director of education and outreach at the research consortium UNAVCO, a National Science Foundation and NASA sponsored organization, Eriksson develops educational programming on modern geodesy, or changes in the shape of the Earth. To do this, temporary and permanently installed arrays of Global Positioning Systems (GPS) obtain finely tuned measurements of short-term movement of land related to earthquakes and long-term movement of the Earth's tectonic plates. About 2000 permanent GPS stations are positioned across the United States.
As an artist, Eriksson says that she strives to capture the essence and processes of the Earth, which she expresses in abstract paintings. In "Tectonics," for instance, five reddish orange panels reflect how pieces of continents come together. "No matter how much I try, my 37-year career of crushing, analyzing, gazing at, trodding over, talking about, reporting, fondling and photographing the Earth comes out in my art!" said Eriksson in her artist's statement.
Just as her geology background informs her art, Eriksson's art can guide her geology. She combined painting with carving and burning processes to make the soft hued 66-by-60-inch "Mélange," an effort she says made her more inquisitive and thoughtful about her science.
"Earth Science Messages" is prompted by the changes that occur to the Earth. "Every process that has happened on the earth leaves something behind: a fossil, a crystal, a bubble," Eriksson explained. Geologists take those remnants and interpret what happened to the Earth.
And in some of the artworks displayed at AAAS, Eriksson has taken geologists' interpretations of evidence of ancient climate changes and interpreted it in her paintings. For instance, she chose green as a predominant color in "Cambrian" to illustrate the period in which the diversity of life on Earth increased dramatically.
"Farallon" is a tribute to part of the EarthScope project, a series of seismic stations installed across the United States. "The seismic velocity data of the Farallon plate is so visual and most people don't know about this gigantic plate descending beneath this country," Eriksson said of the plate that contributed to the formation of the U.S. Rocky Mountains. "I spend a lot of time helping people learn about earthquakes and volcanoes and moving plates. It is just fun to have a blue and orange Farallon hanging on the wall for people to wonder about!"
The AAAS Gallery is located at 12th and H streets, N.W., in Washington, D.C. It is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m.
16 June 2008