Artist Hunter ColeAs anyone who has tried painting with watercolors, tempera or oil paints knows, it's a challenge to execute a vision. Photography and sculpture aren't any easier. Artist Hunter Cole has combined all these media, adding a unique medium to the mix. Cole creates original compositions with bioluminescent bacteria, photographing them before they disappear. (Bacteria has a limited lifespan.)

Cole's newest exhibition is "Living Light: Photographs by Light of Bioluminescent Bacteria," which will be held at the ARC Gallery in Chicago through Jan. 27. It's free and open to the public, and there will be an installation of live bioluminescent bacteria at the closing reception.

The artist shared some of how her work came together over time, and more about her newest work:

Hands, photograph by the light of bioluminescent bacteria, archival inkjet print, 20” x 30” Hands, photograph by the light of bioluminescent bacteria, archival inkjet print, 20” x 30” (Photo: Hunter Cole)

MNN: How did you come up with the idea to use bioluminescence for your work — as opposed to lights or glowing objects of another kind?

Hunter Cole: In 2003, I was working as an adjunct professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where I was exposed to drawing with bioluminescent bacteria in a lab, and that’s when I started using bioluminescent bacteria in my art. The head of the lab drew a heart in bioluminescent bacteria for his wife.

That was such a meaningful symbol since one of the functions of bioluminescence in nature is to attract a mate. Bioluminescence also has other functions such as communication and involvement in predator-prey relationships. The symbolism and surreal nature of using a light created by a living organism attracted me to this medium. I photograph human figures (portraits; nudes; installations) by the light of bioluminescent bacteria.

I also photograph drawings I create with bioluminescent bacteria. In addition to the photos, I also created a time-lapse video featuring the bacteria growing and dying, accompanied by a musical score based on the protein sequences in the bacteria — all of which is meant to invoke reflections on the issue of mortality.

 Her Own DNA: Stage 2, photograph of drawing created with bioluminescent bacteria, archival inkjet print, 22” x 15” Her Own DNA: Stage 2, photograph of drawing created with bioluminescent bacteria, archival inkjet print, 22” x 15” (Photo: Hunter Cole)

What artist's work have influenced you the most? Other light artists, or others who used natural materials in their art (land artists?), or both?

Joe Davis is an artist and scientist that has inspired and influenced me to keep pushing the boundaries of art and science. Joe Davis was the first artist to use DNA as an artistic medium and genetic engineering techniques back in the 1980s for the Microvenus artwork. One of Joe’s many accomplishments is to come up with techniques to encode large amounts of text in DNA. He is working on encoding 50,000 of the most popular Wikipedia pages into the DNA of an apple tree playing off the idea of the tree of knowledge.

Mark O. Martin has great fun doing art with his microbiology students. His wife, Jennifer Quinn, does great drawings of portraits and scientific imagery in bioluminescent bacteria. I particularly enjoyed her portraits of Einstein. Siouxsie Wiles in New Zealand collaborates with artists to create drawings in bioluminescent bacteria. Simon Park in the UK has collaborated with many artists on many microbiology projects including ones with bioluminescent bacteria. Another artist I greatly admire that works with bacteria is Anna Dumitriu. She “is a British artist whose work fuses craft, sculpture and science to explore our relationship to the microbial world, technology and biomedicine.”

When photographing people by the light of bioluminescent bacteria, I compose and create a scene. In creating surreal compositions some artists that have influenced me are Cindy Sherman and Moriko Mori. They are both known for creating elaborate compositions to photograph.

Her Own DNA: Stage 5, photograph of drawing created with bioluminescent bacteria, archival inkjet print Her Own DNA: Stage 5, photograph of drawing created with bioluminescent bacteria, archival inkjet print, 22” x 15” (Photo: Hunter Cole)

Once you have an idea for a new piece, can you walk us through the production process?

Drawing/painting with the bioluminescent bacteria consists of making a liquid culture of the bacteria, dipping a paintbrush or Q-tip in the liquid culture and painting on agar in a Petri dish. It is tricky, because it is like painting with invisible ink. You need to wait to see your painting glowing the next day. I photograph the paintings as they grow and die over days.

The most complicated process is photographing people and objects by the light of bioluminescent bacteria. Frequently I get an idea and getting to the point of taking photographs can take months. For my Bioluminescent Nudes series I ordered costumes from France and Los Angeles. I found models through the Evanston Art Center in Evanston, IL. To create the scenes about 600 Petri dishes had lilies drawn on them by 20 people the day before the photo shoot. White lilies symbolize chastity and virtue. Lilies also symbolize that the soul of the departed has received restored innocence after death. With nudity there is innocence and the ability to attract a mate. One of the functions of bioluminescence in nature is to attract a mate.

Insecta, photograph by the light of bioluminescent bacteria, archival inkjet print, 20 x 30 Insecta, photograph by the light of bioluminescent bacteria, archival inkjet print (Photo: Hunter Cole)

You are still a working scientist as well as creating art. Can you tell us about your work as a scientist?

My work in science is mostly for making advancements in my art. I do teach and coordinate the Genetics Labs at Loyola University Chicago. I update those labs to make the techniques more current such as students detecting GMO foods.

In 2001 I created a course entitled Biology Through Art. The course provides opportunities for students to create art while working in a biology laboratory. Among many other projects, in my course students create their own bioluminescent bacterial drawings. I also teach this course at Loyola University Chicago. It is amazing how much the field of combining art and biology has exploded with so many more practitioners over the years.

 The Entomologist I: Portrait of Bob Hamilton, photograph by the light of bioluminescent bacteria, archival inkjet print, 20 x 30 The Entomologist I: Portrait of Bob Hamilton, photograph by the light of bioluminescent bacteria, archival inkjet print, 20” x 30” (Photo: Hunter Cole)

What's next?

I would like to continue to create more bioluminescent art and to add to the previous series, create new series, more movies, and new music. I would also like to continue to work on a project called The Hidden Suffering of Women with Endo. In this project I am continuing my focus on art, science and societal issues. Endometriosis is a disease where endometrial tissue grows outside the uterus in other parts of the body, which can cause extreme pain and infertility. In fact, one in ten women have endometriosis, but most people have never heard of it. I also have endometriosis. Due to this condition, I had one of my ovaries removed. During the summer of 2015, I worked at SymbioticA on the campus of the University of Western Australia (Perth). Using advanced scientific equipment, I created time-lapse micrographs of endometrial cells growing and dying. SymbioticA is the first research laboratory of its kind that enables artists and researchers to engage in wet biology practices in a biological science department.

 Towers of Light Reflected in the Glasses VI: Portrait of Peter N. Gray, photograph by the light of bioluminescent bacteria, archival inkjet print, 20" x 30" Towers of Light Reflected in the Glasses VI: Portrait of Peter N. Gray, photograph by the light of bioluminescent bacteria, archival inkjet print, 20" x 30" (Photo: Hunter Cole)

Inset photo of Hunter Cole, courtesy HunterCole.org.

Starre Vartan ( @ecochickie ) covers conscious consumption, health and science as she travels the world exploring new cultures and ideas.