The Alchemists Mixing Art With Science

The Alchemists Mixing Art With Science

By Kate Bartlett



These artists are combining two divergent disciplines to create beautiful and fascinating things.

By Kate Bartlett

Think science and art are two divergent disciplines? Not necessarily. There are plenty of polymaths in the world who have taken to combining the two, from Leonardo da Vinci and his 15th-century “ornithopters,” to contemporary Korean American “bacteria” artist Anicka Yi. In our brave new COVID-19 world, both science and art can offer us comfort — the former through the solutions and medical treatments it provides, the latter as a kind of emotional balm, a way of helping us understand the tumult all around.

Graffiti artist Banksy famously depicted a nurse wearing a superhero cape at an English hospital during lockdown in that country in spring 2020. The elusive painter isn’t alone: Many artists across the world have taken inspiration from the pandemic. Meet the people who are as adept in the art of science as they are in the science of art.

Pandemic Art

Street Art. Banksy aside, a plethora of artists used empty city streets as their canvas during the pandemic while art galleries and shows were shuttered. Some used their art as paeans to front-line workers. Others used their art to mock politicians or simply to lighten the general mood. U.K.-based street artist John D’oh used a wall in Bristol to paint an image mocking former U.S. President Donald Trump’s comment about injecting disinfectant to prevent COVID-19, while Australian street artist LUSHSUX depicted Chinese President Xi Jinping in a hazmat suit saying: “Nothing to see. Carry on.” Dominican-based Jesus Cruz Artiles, also known as Eme Freethinker, painted a picture of Gollum from The Lord of the Rings cradling a roll of toilet paper and saying, “My Precious!” In Atlanta, artists including Fabian Williams created huge face masks from white vinyl sheets and used them to cover murals of icons like Martin Luther King Jr. as part of an awareness-raising campaign for the Black community.

Ai Weiwei. Tired of your boring old face masks? Wouldn’t you just love to get your hands on one of these designer items, drawn by the revered Chinese contemporary artist himself? Light blue medical masks quickly became a symbol of the global pandemic, worn on faces worldwide and now commonly found littering the streets, but Ai’s masks are considered treasures, not trash. The project started after the outspoken activist decorated a mask with an ink drawing of a raised middle finger and posted it to his Instagram account. The next thing he knew, people were asking where they could buy them. So Ai started making more, with designs ranging from handcuffs and birds to his famous sunflower seeds, with proceeds from the sales supporting global nonprofits. “An individual wearing a mask makes a gesture; a society wearing masks combats a deadly virus,” Ai explained. 

David Hockney. Here’s one artist who discovered a huge silver lining in the pandemic. The revered British painter hunkered down in a 17th century cottage in Normandy, France, when Europe began to shut down 18 months ago. For her, it kicked off a long period of unparalleled productivity and creativity. While the pandemic has been difficult for many, for 84-year-old Hockney, it may have enabled — and inspired — his latest drawings. And yet, their theme is as far removed from sterile hospitals and vaccine laboratories as you can get. Drawing — quite literally — inspiration from the French Impressionists, the bucolic painted scenes include vibrant images of bright yellow daffodils and abundant apple and quince trees. Hockney’s hundreds of artworks provide a joyful respite from the virus and a reminder of the steadfastness of nature, with one work optimistically entitled Do Remember They Can’t Cancel the Spring.

Artists Who Use Science 

Leonardo da Vinci. This Renaissance genius was at the forefront of both the science and art of his time. The Italian painter may be best known for his enigmatic Mona Lisa, but he was equally interested in medical anatomy, engineering and aviation, and used his deft draftsmanship to explore them all. His drawings include ideas for diving suits, helicopters and parachutes, as well as weapons of war. While many of his ideas never materialized, they showcased da Vinci’s curiosity about the realms of physics and mathematics in addition to art. And he used scientific elements in his paintings too; the principles of linear perspective, ratio and geometry are all evident in his work. Vitruvian Man, a well-known anatomical sketch by da Vinci, examines proportionality, while his pen-and-ink drawings of other body parts were true to life, as he dissected cadavers to learn the secrets of the human body.

Lisa Nilsson. It’s no surprise that this American artist once trained as a medical assistant. The anatomy classes she took are evident in her artwork, much of which involves minutely detailed anatomical cross-sections fashioned entirely out of Japanese mulberry paper and the gilded pages of old books using a technique called quilling. It’s thought that this technique was created by nuns in ancient Egypt and later refined during the Renaissance by monks and nuns seeking to make pictures from the pages of worn-out bibles. Nilsson’s “Tissue Series” uses paper tissue to depict human tissue in its many shades of pink and red, from the brain to the female thorax. She uses images of dissected human body parts in medical texts as inspiration.

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. This renowned contemporary Mexican artist, who has had pieces shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and Tate Modern in London, uses science and technology in many of his interactive works. One of his conceptual pieces, entitled Volumetric Solar Equation, uses more than 25,000 LED lights to “simulate the turbulence, flares and spots visible on the surface of the sun.” Border Tuner was an interactive piece that connected people on either side of the U.S.-Mexico border by displaying bridges of light controlled by the participants’ voices. In another installation at the Guggenheim Museum, visitors were encouraged to speak into a computer, which then projected colors across the room that were linked to specific voice traits. Lozano-Hemmer has also used heart rate sensors in his art.

Anicka Yi. This South Korean-born, New York-based artist uses highly unconventional materials and has science to thank for “the mutation” of a lot of her work. In 2015, she collected 100 bacterial sample swabs from female friends and then had a synthetic biologist combine them to use as paint in an effort to answer the question: “What does feminism smell like?” Her work is often ephemeral as well as olfactory, and she’s used human sweat, bacteria and organic decomposition to create her unsettling installations. She’s also fermented kombucha into leather-like material in some of her work and injected snails with the hormone oxytocin.

Science-Focused Artists of the Future

The following are winners of the first-ever Pfizer Design for Science contest. Entrants were asked to represent scientific innovations or the patient experience in artistic design.

Syringes and DNA. In the recent Pfizer Design for Science contest, architecture student Julia Bohlen from Wisconsin used her entry to show how gene therapy can fight diseases. Her Escher-esque digital drawing, rendered in shades of gray, shows how our DNA is akin to a puzzle, and her architecture background also shines through. The work of Vina Domingo, another emerging talent who grew up in the Philippines but now lives in Idaho, borders on surrealism. Domingo’s work involves colored pencil on paper, with her prize-winning entry in Design for Science showing a tree of syringes — indicating how vaccines strengthen our immunity and are a lifesaver for humanity, our collective family tree.

Blood and Bone. New York-based Hallye Webb is the daughter of two doctors, so she has been keen to use her art to contribute to the world of medicine. Her Design for Science prize-winning piece was even more personal because her father had recently undergone a bone marrow transplant. As a result, she focused her illustration on oncology by depicting a person lassoing a white blood cell. Fellow winner Michelle Fox’s entry was a series of mixed media paintings verging on the abstract. This Texas-based artist has science to thank for saving her own eyesight — and essentially her career — and as such has been moved to paint subjects from the world of science.

COVID-19 and Trauma. Yingbo Qiao was a graphic designer based in Beijing before he relocated to San Francisco. For the Design for Science contest, he created a poster meant to help convince people to maintain social distance during the pandemic. It depicts the now instantly recognizable spiked-crown image of the coronavirus as a series of brightly colored optical illusions. Miranda L. Pelligrino’s academic interest is one that will likely be highly sought-after in our current age of anxiety. Pelligrino is conducting research at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth into how art-making and trauma impact students and educators alike. As someone who suffers from chronic pain, her entry depicts a body beset by inflammation, and she says patients like her “live hoping science will win.”