Giant bacteria and virus sculptures on display at the Health Sciences Campus now illuminate the atrium of the Luo Auditorium.
Philadelphia artist Kate Kaman stood in front of an audience of creative and scientific minds last Thursday in Luo Auditorium of Temple’s Health Sciences Center for the dedication of her sculptural installation, “The Unseen World.” In typical award show-speech fashion, sans the Gaultier gown and Jimmy Choo heels, Kaman sent out thanks to friends and family for support, philanthropists for their generous donations and, most importantly, to the most minuscule and ancient elements of nature – bacteria.
“Without [bacteria], none of this would be possible,” Kaman said.
Kaman and her partner, Joel Erland, are the innovative minds behind the creation of 55 large- scale sculptures suspended throughout an area measuring approximately 130 feet long, 27 feet wide and 41 feet tall in HSC’s atrium.
The permanent installation depicting giant bacteria and one virus is hooked up to an LED system at night to create a light show better than any Christmas decorations a nutty high school science professor could dream up.
“It’s a form in nature and a quite interesting, beautiful, complex subject matter that we wanted to make visible to everyone in Philadelphia who drives down Broad Street,” Kaman said. “It’s basically taking what’s happening inside the labs and inside the classrooms and making it available for everyone to see and enjoy.”
The project was conceptually created in 2008 when Temple’s School of Medicine held an open call for artists to design a piece for the atrium. Kaman and Erland fell in love with the space and idea of combining art and science for medical students.
They decided to submit a one-page proposal to a committee comprised of art collectors, faculty from the Tyler School of Art and the School of Medicine and people throughout the region who are well-known in the art world.
“You can really stretch the limits of your subject matter as an artist because science is just so vast and interesting that there are so many incredible concepts that are possible,” Kaman said. “We narrowed it down to the bugs that are studied by doctors and scientists because there’s really a world that there’s so much to continue to be discovered. It’s a lot like the ocean or space in that it’s relatively a new frontier.”
After being chosen as a finalist, the team wrote a longer proposal, created a model of its vision and presented the idea to the committee.
“As a surgeon, it was an eye opening experience to listen to the proposals and to see the multitude of artists that submitted their work to be chosen,” said John Daly, the dean of the School of Medicine. “In the end, it was Ms. Kaman’s work that was chosen, and it won our minds and hearts. What medical school wouldn’t fall in love with bacteria large enough to eat you for lunch?”
The entire project was funded through philanthropic efforts.
“The greatest struggle for me as an artist is being creative every day and being able to survive,” Kaman said. “It’s very rare that you find patrons such as the ones I found at Temple’s School of Medicine that allow for that survival every day.”
During the year, Temple raised funds from employees and interested alumni to generate the artwork. Kaman and Erland took that time to develop their idea and research the materials they would work with.
It took nine months in the fabrication stage to make master sculptures out of plaster, which would be used to make molds. The molds were cast in a material called polyvitro, a plastic glass. Mica powder mixed with resin gives the bacteria a pearly, iridescent look during the day when natural light comes in the atrium’s windows.
“We want people to experience wonder when they see it,” Erland said. “It’s supposed to be like a floating feeling, like balloons.”
Temple professor of medicine and infectious disease specialist Dr. Bennett Lorber, who has a professional interest in bacteria, met with the artists on numerous occasions to discuss reference photos they were using, guided them to better images and was available to answer any questions they had, so the sculptures would be as true to form as possible in terms of actual shape and relative scale.
“Artists going back centuries were interested in depicting things from science and [“The Unseen World”] continues this wonderful tradition but presents it in a completely new and exciting light,” Lorber said. “It’s interesting conceptually and also interesting as visual art.”
The team also met with microbiologist Bonnie Bassler of Princeton University, who studies how bacteria communicate. This constant communication bacteria act out was illustrated by illuminating the sculptures with colored lights that go on and off and change color. The LED lights are controllable and programmable so that, over the course of the years, the light shows can change and evolve as people’s knowledge of bacteria advances.
“The work does really reflect the age that we live in, in that anybody is able to research and find information about bacteria and science just through the Internet,” Kaman said. “We’re not science experts, yet the information is available when you look for it.”
“One doesn’t have to be a master in the field to have an appreciation for it,” Erland said.
Kaman said she hopes by drawing subject matter from science, she can make the field more accessible to the general public who may not have the same facilities and access to learning as college students.
“I think it’s really important for an artist, even though they might not be experts in the scientific field, to explore it because the general public benefits from it,” she said. “Someone might not be interested in reading a textbook, but they can still gain access through artwork. It’s just another language.”
“Medicine is an art,” Erland said. “We all strive to achieve the most excellent thing. For a doctor, it’s the health of their patients: For an artist, it’s an essential feeling that gives meaning.”
Cara Stefchak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.