An Art/Science Mashup Births 'Microscopic Sirens'

May 18, 2015

A screenshot of the a view under the microscope of the microorganisms existing in a water sample taken from Blind River.
Credit Tim McLean

What happens when you put an artist and a scientist in the same boat? The local artist residency ‘A Studio In The Woods’ aimed to find out, with their new fellowship "Flint and Steel: Cross-disciplinary Combustion". It matches artists with Tulane University faculty to explore social and environmental change through art. Printmaker Pippen Frisbie-Calder and biologist Dr. Tim McLean explored phytoplankton in local wetlands.

An artist and a scientist are in a canoe on Blind River off Highway 61. They’re collecting water samples in a phytoplankton net. They’re not used to doing this type of activity, with each other.

Pippen Frisbie-Calder and Dr. Tim McLean joined forces to create artwork around one of his specialties as an ecologist and evolutionary biologist, phytoplankton. McLean says it’s not every day someone is as psyched about microalgae as he is. “I’ve never had someone come up to me and say ‘I’m really interested in phytoplankton’ that was not a fellow colleague or scientist.”

Dr. Tim McLean collects a water sample from Blind River using a phytoplankton net.
Credit Laine Kaplan-Levenson / WWNO
Dr. McLean holding the collected water sample, ready to bring back to the lab and examine under the microscope.
Credit Laine Kaplan-Levenson / WWNO

Frisbie-Calder’s interest spurs from a desire to learn about the specifics of what’s going on in her environment. “That exposed me to the idea that the microorganisms can completely determine the success of the whole ecosystem at large," she says. "Wandering around here, what actually exists in the water that we have no idea about?"

Pippen Frisbie-Calder in her element out on the water, navigating her canoe on Blind River.
Credit Laine Kaplan-Levenson / WWNO

Dr. McLean can attest that we really don’t know all that much about our local microorganisms. The project will produce art, but spur research, too. “I’m hoping this will be a starting point to do some cataloging and inventory of these species,” says McLean. “There’s a lot of work looking at plants and trees and animals, but not a lot in microscopic communities.”

At Dr. McLean’s lab located on Tulane’s campus, the team puts collected water samples into a centrifuge, concentrating all the particles down into a smaller pellet in order to see a wide abundance of diversity from the samples.

“Then we put it under the microscope, observe and identify what we have, and see if there are things Pippin can represent in one form or another,” Dr. McLean explains. He identifies specimens he knows well, alongside organisms he knows, but hasn’t seen before. Yet everything the printmaker sees is totally new to her.

The team checks out their samples under the microscope, moving the slide under the lens to find microorganisms as if they're playing a video game.
Credit Laine Kaplan-Levenson / WWNO

“When I first started looking at them I thought they looked like the craziest sci-fi aliens I’ve ever seen! And now that we’ve worked together a little more I try to identify diatom, ciliate, the specifics I don’t know but I can sometimes identify where it sits taxonomically. But I think they’re absolutely beautiful, the way that they move sometimes is incredibly whimsical. I’ve been overwhelmed by how pretty they are, I wasn’t really expecting that to be the case.”

One of Frisbie-Calder's drawings, of a penate diatom.
Credit Pippen Frisbie-Calder

It really does look like a scene from Aaahh!!! Real Monsters! Some microbes have spiky mohawks, long tales, or sharp teeth. They fly across the screen, chasing each other, or swirling around on their own. Frisbie-Calder takes screenshots of all the creatures that come into the frame. Back in her studio, she’s used them as reference for new sculptures, woodcuts and drawings.

“I like taking ones that are compositionally strong, not just individual images. A bunch grouped together... where they overlap is interesting. When I’m collaging these in large-scale drawings it allows me to have a better understanding of how they would interact.”

Dr. McLean gets to explore, too. The residency gets him out in the field more often, and observing samples he collected himself, instead of handing them off to a grad student or assistant. And, explaining things to a non-scientist makes him a better teacher.

“It’s easy for me to fall back on my jargon, and I hate to think people aren’t following what I’m saying," he says. "So I have to think of different ways to communicate these ideas, finding connections so people can relate to what I’m saying.”

Dr. Tim McLean and Pippen Frisbie-Calder at the St. James Boat Club, ready to launch the canoe out on Blind River.
Credit Laine Kaplan-Levenson / WWNO

Their shared goal is an educational tool to raise awareness of phytoplankton’s role in the wetlands. After four months, the fellowship is coming to an end. But they’ve already made plans to keep working together.

“I mean, it doesn’t have to end with this project”, Frisbie-Calder says to McLean. “I hope not! You still have a canoe, I still have a net...” he responds. Why stop now, when this odd couple has just started to understand each other.

A piece included in the 'Microscopic Sirens' exhibit.
Credit Pippen Frisbie-Calder

Pippen Frisbie-Calder’s show, ‘Microscopic Sirens’ is on display at the Tigermen Den located at 3113 Royal Street now through August 1.