Science and art are two fields of study that some may assume don’t — and shouldn’t — overlap. One is grounded in observable reality, while the other can be abstract and open to interpretation. But Loyola professor, artist and scientist Hunter Cole has been challenging this notion for decades through her science-inspired artwork.
Cole will be showing her unique work at Chicago’s ARC Gallery (2156 N. Damen Ave.), an artist-run gallery where female artists can display their work, in January.
The multimedia exhibition is titled “Living Light: Photographs by Light of Bioluminescent Bacteria” and it will be at the gallery Jan. 3-Jan. 27. A series of stunning photographs featuring nude models, petri dishes and former Loyola science department faculty members will be displayed, and on the final night, visitors will get the chance to see drawings made of living bacteria specimens.
Cole said she had an affinity for both art and science while growing up in California. Her father, who passed away earlier this year, was one of her greatest influences and helped cultivate her dichotomic interests.
“A lot of weekends [when I was growing up], my dad and I would go to Golden Gate Park … where there was an Academy of Sciences museum and the [de Young] Art Museum across the way,” Cole said. “For many years, I would go to the art and science museums almost every weekend.”
When it came time for her to choose a career path, Cole decided to focus on science. She received a bachelor’s degree in biology from University of California, Berkeley and a doctorate’s degree in genetics at University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“I didn’t really think of art as a career,” Cole said. “I would have fun with drawing and photography and stuff like that, but I saw that just as fun.”
Still, Cole’s love of art lingered. She continued to draw throughout her undergraduate years and she and her father took a trip to Paris and visited famous art museums during graduate school. This trip inspired her to take art classes alongside her science classes, which helped her refine her skills.
“[Painting] started as a retreat, as a way to relax,” Cole said. “But even then, cellular imagery, which I was familiar with, would come out in my paintings.”
Paintings like these can be seen in Cole’s “Biological Domains” art installment on the third floor of the Quinlan Life Sciences Building.
Each photograph in Cole’s upcoming ARC Gallery exhibit features a multitude of petri dishes full of bioluminescent bacteria — bacteria that naturally produce their own light — with some scenes being illuminated by hundreds of them. In some images there are glowing lilies drawn in the dishes, symbolizing purity, and some dishes depict insects. Cole said the photographs were taken in a dark studio, lit only by blue light from the bacteria.
“I like the idea that [the bacteria] is its own light source,” Cole said. “I like how there’s so many functions of bioluminescence, and how you can relate that to some of the scenes [in the photographs].”
One photograph depicts three nude women wearing cage skirts and headpieces covered in petri dishes, their hands clasped in prayer. Another shows a woman in a wedding dress lying on the ground, clutching a bouquet while surrounded by dozens of glowing drawings of roses. The haunting blue light that saturates each photo makes them almost eerie, yet it’s difficult to look away. Some photographs were taken in one snapshot while others required long exposures over several minutes to achieve the right effect, according to Cole.
In addition to working on her art, Cole teaches an entry-level biology class at Loyola called “Liberal Arts Biology,” formally “Biology through Art.” According to Loyola’s biology department course listings, the course provides a basic science education and teaches students to “see anatomy as art” and utilize biological elements to create art. Cole said the course’s art projects include a “biological self-portrait” and drawing with bioluminescent bacteria.
“I thought it would be fun if they could create whole scenes with 600 petri dishes,” Cole said. “[The idea for my exhibit] kind of arose out of an idea for something my students could do.”
Cole encourages everyone to visit the ARC Gallery and view her work, even if they may not have an interest in science.
“The fact that … the only light in the photographs is coming from bacteria is pretty cool by itself,” Cole said. “I think the symbolism, the photography and the ‘coolness factor’ are interesting to people.”
The ARC Gallery is open Wednesday-Saturday noon-6 p.m. and Sunday noon-4 p.m. Admission is free. For more information about Cole’s work and her “Living Light” exhibit, visit her website, huntercole.org.