Breaking The Molds: See Microbes As Art

Two California exhibits are showcasing art derived from these unlikely muses to draw attention to scientific research and interaction with nature.


For most folks, microbes and mold conjure unsavory images of outbreaks and dirty bathrooms. But two Southern California exhibits are proving that one person’s contagion is another one’s canvas.


Taking Art to the Cellular Level features 20 enlarged microscopic visuals from Southern California research. The collaborative exhibit–on display through the end of the year–comes from Biocom, a life sciences trade association; IllusArt, which converts life science images to art prints; and San Diego International Airport’s Art Program, which curates rotating exhibits for the terminal’s 48,000 daily passengers.

Breaking the Molds: TTOZOI in Evolution is a kind of painting by organic mold. This exhibit–showcased at Sixty 29 Contemporary in Culver City, California, through October 12–is presented by ART 1307, a Napoli, Italy cultural institution that promotes Italian artists, and DCA Fine Art, the firm of international art dealer Delia Cabral.

A researcher gets her photo taken next to her piece during Taking Art to the Cellular Level’s opening reception.Photo: Cammy Duong

Microbial Muses

The microbe exhibit came about when the San Diego Airport asked Biocom to coordinate an art installation as a way of highlighting the San Diego region’s robust life science industry and groundbreaking academic research. Life sciences study the mechanisms of living organisms, often with an eye toward regenerative medicine.

“The public is often unaware of the amazing beauty of life at the molecular level, because they only see the end result of the innovation that takes place in the lab–whether it be in the form of a drug, diagnostic or medical tool,” says Biocom president and CEO Joe Panetta. “Our partnership with the San Diego International Airport and Ilus Art, enabled an amazing art exhibit that educates and creates excitement about the life sciences by showcasing its visual appeal.”

Scientists grew cells on glass coverslips, chemically fixed their structure and appearance, then treated with fluorescent antibodies and dyes to enhance cell lines or specific molecules within them. A digital camera attached to a microscope outfitted with an ultraviolet light and filters to locate the fluorescence.

(L-R) Stefano Forgione and Pino Rossi in front of one of their pieces during Breaking the Mold’s opening reception.Photo: Susan Karlin

Motivational Mold

Naples, Italy-based artists Stefano Forgione and Pino Rossi–known professionally as TTOZOI–add the molds (produced by mixing wheat flour with water and natural pigments) to canvases. They then incubate the canvases inside a plexi crate that’s sealed to create a certain humidity and environment where the molds develop, and allow them to grow and spread on their own for 20-30 days. When the molds reach a desired design, the artists freeze them with spray varnish to fix them into place.

“TTOZOI is not just a collaboration between two humans, but a collaboration between two humans and their ecosystem,” notes curator Peter Frank.

The artists explained through a translator that they see their work as a partnership between themselves and nature, especially helping to transforming something so commonplace into something beautiful

“We work with five hands–four hands for the artists, and nature as the fifth hand,” they said. “In creating this painting, we feel we help nature express itself. The canvas shows the process of life.”

About the author

Susan Karlin, based in Los Angeles, is a regular contributor to Fast Company, where she covers space science, autonomous vehicles, and the future of transportation. Karlin has reported for The New York Times, NPR, Scientific American, and Wired, among other outlets, from such locations as the Arctic and Antarctica, Israel and the West Bank, and Southeast Asia