New art installation at U-M Museum of Natural History explores unseen world of microorganisms

Artist Jim Cogswell reviews some of his ink paintings of microorganisms created

Artist Jim Cogswell reviews some of his ink paintings of microorganisms created for his installation of Unseen Worlds. Image courtesy: Constant Motion Productions.

With COVID-19, microorganisms have migrated from natural science and medicine onto center stage in politics, history, and civil society.

Through the artistry of Jim Cogswell , microorganisms can now be seen in a colorful mural on the windows of the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History.

" Unseen Worlds ” magnifies the world of microorganisms and mirrors visitors’ movements as the vinyl elements wrap their way around the glass exterior of the building.

Cogswell, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and professor at U-M’s Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design , has been working on this project for more than three years.

"The Biological Sciences Building was designed to represent science, but from the outside you may not know that,” Cogswell said. "My job was to put the science on the exterior.”

Using images from scientific research, Cogswell made ink paintings of more than 350 microorganisms such as radiolaria, diatoms, hydra, worms (annelids) and a wide variety of planktonic creatures. With the help of Stamps School students, the paintings were transferred to a digital format then sent to a fabricator to create machine-cut vinyl film.

The 1,700-square-foot mural is assembled from multiple elements, each color cut from a different roll and applied as individual pieces to the windows. The color permeates the vinyl material, making it equally vibrant from both the inside and out. With varying degrees of transparency, the artwork responds to the intensity of light determined by weather and time of day, bathing viewers in shifting sensations of color and shadows.

"Our hope is that visitors will be drawn to these delightful, human-scale microorganisms and want to discover how these unseen elements impact our world,” said Amy Harris, museum director. "This installation serves as an invitation to discovery.”

Three students were instrumental in the research, development and execution of the project: Sky Christoph (Stamps), Kai Hamill (Stamps) and Beverly Fu (LSA). In addition, Cogswell worked with U-M faculty in cell and developmental biology, ecology and evolutionary biology, internal medicine and physics, and at the U-M Biological Station.

"Unseen Worlds” will be on view through 2023.

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