Diatoms artfully arranged by Kalus Kemp

Diatoms artfully arranged by Klaus Kemp. (Photo: Klaus Kemp)

When Klaus Kemp's friends go on vacation, he doesn't want souvenirs. "I tell them, 'Bring me back some sludge.'" As someone who is happiest when he's sifting through globs of muck for hidden treasures, it's the best possible gift. Kemp, a German-born Englishman, is one of the world's few remaining practitioners of the Victorian art of diatom arranging, in which tiny, single-celled algae are arranged onto glass sides in an array of shapes and patterns — and all visible only under a microscope. There are more than 100,000 species of the tiny hard-shelled organisms, so the possibilities are endless.

Kemp first became aware of this hidden world in his teens, when he went to work for a biological supply company that supplied materials to schools and universities. The company director showed him some diatom slides, and he was enthralled. "It was like a jewelry box of shapes, sizes, colors. I had an instant recognition that I wanted to study them."

Later, when the company folded, he was given the collection. Today, "I probably own the largest collection of samples that any amateur has, even many museums. If I had to give a count of the samples, it would be in the excess of 10,000," Kemp estimates.

His collection is a great resource for scientists and water companies to use in tracking the evolution of the diatom population to see how pollution and climate change has affected it. "Diatoms are pretty good indicators of water quality," he says. "And they do far more for the exchange of gases than the Amazon rain forest ever will. Although they are so small, the biomass, the total number of them, exceeds everything else on this planet. You can't see them with the naked eye, but you can see the evidence of them from space. On the coastline of California, there's a band of discolored water and that's diatoms." Additionally, he points out their essential role at the bottom of the food chain. "Remove them, and it collapses."

Klaus Kemp at his microscope, taking a break from arranging the tiny diatoms

Klaus Kemp at his microscope, taking a break from arranging the tiny diatoms. (Photo: Sheila Kemp)

Kemp, who had escaped to West Berlin from East Berlin and then to England in 1948 when he was 10 years old, says there are two sides of him where diatoms are concerned: the scientist and the artist. The latter came to the fore when he began experimenting with diatom arranging purely "for interest's sake. I'd go to meetings and sell a few slides." But that changed when he received a call from someone in Santa Cruz, California, who requested a special image to use on a Christmas card. "I gave it some thought and then I produced a Christmas tree, with baubles, candles and presents at the base. People who received the card phoned and asked where he got it from, and that opened up the American market for me."

Diatoms arranged to resemble a Christmas tree and presentsThe Internet has made that market global, spreading the word about Kemp's work and discoveries, and making it possible to sell slides via his website. Most range in cost from 5 to 70 English pounds ($7.50 to $106), with complicated designs like the Christmas tree at the high end. He's sold tens of thousands of them to date.

Kemp spends a day on most pieces, such as a repeated pattern in a star or circle, "But I don't do it every day for the whole day. You have to walk away because it's quite a strain on the eye." Going for a break in the garden refocuses his vision. Large or more complex pieces can take weeks. "The largest one I've done is 1,200 pieces in an arrangement, 100 per day."

He begins by taking the brown-colored sludge and boiling it in hydrochloric acid and then sulphuric acid to remove the organic material. "You're left with a nice white sediment. When you shake it, it looks like snowflakes falling." Under the microscope, he examines and sorts his specimens, using a tiny glass needle, placing them on a glass slide. "The Victorians used more exotic things like pigs eyelashes, porcupine quills, badger hairs, tiger's whiskers," he notes. "I'm not going to take a whisker from a tiger. I don't think it would be in a good mood."

In his early research, he discovered that Victorian diatomists often lied about the adhesive they used to mislead competitors. "I think I may have hit on what they were using through a process of elimination of what was available at the time," he says. "I'm not going to tell you, but I've given it to my wife, and after I'm gone, she can give it to whoever wants it."

Whether anyone will is open to question. "When I first started in the 1950s, there were seven amateurs. All of those have now died," says Kemp. "There are one or two people who are making small mounts or are attempting to, and I have talked with them about how to do it. I'd hate to think there was nobody to pick this up," he says of his unusual hobby. "I think if I've done anything it's open the world of microscopy to people more than anybody else, and I wouldn't want that to be lost for another hundred years."

He thought he'd found his protégé when a fellow from Montana visited him for two weeks of tutoring. "He made beautiful mounts. Unfortunately, he's gone back to fly-fishing. Nobody has the patience. They're very keen at the beginning but they get bored or frustrated. Not every slide you make is a winner. A lot of people can't live with that."

Diatoms arranged to look like flowers

Diatoms arranged to look like flowers. (Photo: Klaus Kemp)

So does Kemp have the patience of a saint? "My wife would say no," he chuckles. "My friends think I'm somewhat hyper," he says, finding it impossible to calm himself as the Victorians did by sitting in a darkened room for an hour.  

"Generally, I don't have too much patience. It's rather odd that I can sit there and not get frustrated about it even when it goes wrong."

Diatoms arranged in a star formationBut he admits to his exasperation "when I've made a lovely symmetrical arrangement and one floats away. You've arranged them all on a glass slide and put the adhesive on top to hold them, put a resin on that, and then put a glass on top to seal it. But sometimes one will float. When I first got married, I'd left my slide propped up against the microscope, and my wife was dusting and she dusted it clean," he remembers, noting, "We're still married."

Kemp finds the rewards of his painstaking work worth the effort, for the peace and tranquility it brings him and the wonder he still feels when he looks at diatoms. "Wherever you go, you can find diatoms and you never know what you're going to find. It's a real treasure trove for me," he says.  "I'm still amazed even after 60 years of doing this, that something that small can be so geometrically correct and so beautifully sculptured, and nobody knows they're there. That's the most amazing thing I find about them. They're truly beautiful in their own right."

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Inset photos: Klaus Kemp