Scientists Express Their Artistic Sides At Kansas City's Kemper East Museum

Aug 2, 2016

It's no secret that science often produces mesmerizing images to go along with all of its graphs, charts and tables. Now some of those images, generated by biomedical research underway in the Kansas City region, have a show all of their own at Kemper East.

"It's not something we usually show here," says Erin Dziedzic, the Kemper's director of curatorial affairs.

But through conversations with Wayne Carter, president and CEO of the Kansas City Area Life Sciences Institute, Dziedzic saw a common purpose.

For the last few years, Carter has been eager to promote the artistic element of scientific discovery and the necessity of creativity in innovation. So Dziedzic and Carter had yet another in the art-world's ongoing conversation about adding arts to the vaunted educational fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics — i.e., STEAM instead of just STEM education.

"Education is a major initiative at the Kemper," Dziedzic says. "In talking with Dr. Carter, we learned more about the interesting interdisciplinary connections his scientists were having, and we talked about our multidisciplinary interest as a contemporary art museum."

'Baby's Breath,' a computed tomography image by Josh Breaux of the radiology department at Children's Mercy Hospital.
Credit Courtesy Kansas City Area Life Sciences Institute

Dziedic and Carter reviewed images scientists submitted to KCALSI, and the resulting exhibition, Science to Art, is up through September 12 at the museum's open-to-the-public administrative headquarters a block from the main museum.

"One of the things that struck me was the stories that are tied to the images," Dziedzic says. "The researchers not only have an incredible interest in the specific scientific realm in which they work, but also deep interest in artists."

For example, she notes, "One work is a collaboration piece designed specifically as an homage to Andy Warhol. So these are scientists who are clearly interested in the visual arts."

Another image that stands out for Dziedzic is "Breathing Bacteria."

The image, from Kristopher R. Schumacher, a researcher at MRI Global, depicts the surface of a shallow pool of water disturbed by raindrops. Schumacher's research showed that when the water was disturbed by heavy rain during monsoon season, a pneumonia-causing bacteria might be released into the air, causing rice-paddy workers to become sick. 

'Breathing Bacteria,' ANSYS 'Fluent' computational fluid dynamics, by Kristopher R. Schumacher of MRI Global.
Credit Courtesy Kansas City Area Life Sciences Institute

"It’s incredible to see the ripple effect of patterns on a microscopic level," Dziedzic says. "It results in the same sorts of patterns we see in landscapes, in architectural elements and other genres throughout contemporary art. For me it’s interesting to see that microscopic pattern blown out to be representative of larger patterns in nature and the body."

Another, perhaps unintentional, similarity may be the language on the wall labels. It turns out that scientists' sometimes descriptions of their work can be as challenging as artspeak.

'Eye of the Storm,' a confocal microscope image by T. Annelise Nguyen of the department of diagnostic medicine and pathobiology at Kansas State University.
Credit Courtesy Kansas City Area Life Sciences Institute

T. Annelise Nguyen described her "Eye of the Storm" image, for instance, as depicting "where cell-to-cell communication proteins occur in human breast cancer tissue. The patient's tumor sample was labeled to show proteins of interest relating to cell-to-cell communication. Green labels Connexin protein, red labels Protein Kinase C, and blue labels nuclei. The intensity of each color provides a landscape of protein expression."

"It’s interesting to see the language of another perspective used in contemporary art," Dziedzic says. "A lot of times, some of the ways we describe contemporary artwork can also be pretty dense in terms of the intensity of the language. But it’s also nice to be able to be prompted by the language of another profession, and be interested in going off and doing your own research into what that might mean."

The titles of the work, she notes, incorporate scientific perspective "but also interject that poetic side of the way the artist is thinking about the image."

That's clear in "Two Hearts," Tim Domeier's multi-photon flourescence image from a mouse heart showing blood vessels in red and heart muscle cells as blue.

'Two Hearts,' an image from a confocal laser scanning microscope by Tim Domeier of the department of medical pharmacology and physiology at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
Credit Courtesy Kansas City Area Life Sciences Institute

"In this particular image, the blood vessels naturally made a heart shape — a heart within a heart," Domeier notes in the wall label.

After the exhibit closes, the art will be auctioned at the KCALSI annual dinner on September 22, with proceeds benefiting STEAM education programs around the community, including at the Kemper.

"We're thrilled to be part of this and chosen to be a partner," says Don Schreiner, the Kemper's director of development. "The show really bridges the gap between science and art in a compelling way."

Science to Art, through September 12 at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art's Kemper East location, 4420 Warwick Boulevard, Kansas City, Missouri, 816-753-5784.

C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.