UW Today

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February 26, 2009

Art under the microscope: Bioengineering lab images on exhibit at Harborview

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The bottle of Chanel No. 5 shimmers behind a swerving rainbow. Closer inspection shows that the letters spell “channel”—the image is a visual and word play, created from superimposing a perfume bottle and a scientific photograph.

This picture, and other imaginative takes on UW bioengineering research, will be on display tomorrow through April 3 at the Harborview Medical Center cafeteria.

“These are compelling and beautiful images that are visually appealing, and they’re a gateway to the science that’s happening at the University,” said Peggy Weiss, art program manager at Harborview Medical Center, who curated the exhibit. “I see this as an opportunity to align the Harborview Art Program with research on the upper campus. Artists and scientists share a commitment to inquiry and discovery, which is a nice symmetry.”

This is the first time the Harborview Art Program — which regularly includes local artists, musicians and performers — will feature scientific research.

The exhibit also serves as an artistic premiere of sorts for images from the laboratory of Albert Folch, a UW associate professor of bioengineering, though some may have illuminated the pages of scientific journals.

“Almost everything we publish is in the form of images,” Folch said. His lab’s research looks at how fluids and cells interact in tiny spaces. The findings could help build disposable medical kits to replace expensive lab tests for diagnosing diseases such as malaria and HIV. The various fluids and cells are stained with fluorescent dyes and photos are taken through a microscope using a high-resolution digital camera.

About two years ago Folch began collecting some of his favorite images (see previous UWeek story) and created an online gallery of those he felt were too beautiful to be lost to obscurity.

When Weiss learned of the online gallery last year and suggested an exhibit at Harborview, Folch readily accepted. He said he sees it as a form of outreach for the lab and also as a way to build ties with the art community. He’s always had an interest in art, he said, and hopes to involve his lab in more projects combining art and science.

“Artists have a different point of view, a different way of looking at the samples, a different way of looking at the presentation of the data. We have a lot to learn from them,” Folch said.

The 20 images in the collection were selected by Weiss and Folch to represent a diversity of research and imagery, while also forming a cohesive collection. Details one thousandth of an inch wide are seen clearly when blown up to 2-feet-wide prints. The pieces were framed with support from the office of the UW Dean of Medicine.

One image in the new exhibit, titled The Day Mondrian Visited the Lab, depicts stark blue lines on a white background, recalling the work of Dutch painter Piet Mondrian. Another, a T-shaped collage made with black-and-white pictures of cells, was originally named after Antoni Tapies, a painter from Folch’s native Barcelona who favors black crosses (on request Folch later renamed the piece in honor of his daughter, Talia).

Two other pieces on display are mixed-media experiments, incorporating both laboratory images and the devices used to create them.

“I called this project BAIT [which stands for Bringing Art Into Science and Technology], in the sense that I use the images as a bait to attract people to the science behind them,” Folch said. “I don’t always choose the images that are the most scientifically interesting ones. I usually choose the ones that, over years of showing them to people, I’ve noticed tend to catch the eye the most.”

For Harborview’s art program, this is yet another exploration of bringing art to patients and expanding the role of art in people’s everyday lives.

“I’m most interested in the projects that bring different audiences together,” Weiss said. Last spring Harborview held a popular exhibit by a local boy with autism who creates paper collages, and organized talks by experts from UW’s autism center. In another annual program, UW art students visit the critical-care waiting area and then create pieces for display there. This spring a group of UW medical residents will tour the Harborview art collection and engage, for the first time, in an in-depth conversation around the therapeutic benefits of art in the medical center, Weiss said.

For his part, Folch likes the idea of leaving an art gallery knowing more about the world of science.

“I would like to use art as an educational tool, to make science more easily accessible,” Folch said. “You don’t need to learn all the details of the science, but the idea behind BAIT is that you’ll go to an art exhibit and you’ll come out having learned something about science.”

The Harborview cafeteria is located on the B level of the Harborview Medical Center, 325 9th Ave. In April the collection will move to a more permanent location at UW Medicine’s new offices in South Lake Union.