Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Spitball Testate Amoebas

Award-winning amoeba art!
For a couple of years now, I've been pondering what to do with a roll of rice paper that Grandma Bowser gifted to me before her death. I often imagine her watercolors swirling on the paper's surface, leaving behind shapes of leaves, stems, and flowers.

Granny's "vintage" Unryu paper
It is old, foxed, and fragile paper - not very useful as a paint substrate. How can it be put to use? Out of nowhere, the schoolboy in me remembered how fun is was to shoot spitballs out of an empty BIC pen. I started making spitballs out of granny's paper and realized they could be used to sculpt the shells of foraminifera and other agglutinating critters. I cut the paper into small squares, soaked them in water, and started making spitballs of various sizes and shapes.

Spitballs before baking
 I then baked them at 350 degrees F for 10 minutes. Nicely browned and quite hard, they seemed like an excellent building material worthy of amoeboid architecture.

Spitballs after baking

The first agglutinated shell I made was destined to be donated to the Lake George Arts Project's "Black Velvet Art" fundraiser party. This organization hosted several of our art/science collaborative exhibitions in the past (Snails and TrailsRaising the Fleet) and I owed them a piece of amoeba art. The shell was mounted on a piece of granny's paper soaked in India ink. The shell aperture was fashioned from a piece of black velvet. (I resisted the temptation to paint a fluorescent Elvis in there.)

Agglutinated spitballs
I liked the organic feel of the piece, but thought it did not fit the party's theme, which was "shine." (I went dressed as a moonshiner - felt mighty comfortable in that roll, too!) The black velvet seemed lost on the blackened paper, too. How to dress up this piece?
Amoeba shell on blue rice paper
I made a second agglutinated shell, this time mounting it on blue-dyed paper containing embedded tinsel. When backlit, all the colors in the paper appeared quite stunning. But it just didn't look good in reflected light. Now what? I needed to make the spitball sediment grains "shine," and decided to try silver gilding them.
Silver gilded amoeba
Yuk, it still didn't look right. I once melted a silver tea kettle on an electric stovetop, and remembered how lovely the silver Dali-like droplets looked draped against the heating element. So I painted each grain with blue-black gouache.

I thought it looked better painted black
In the end, a friend graciously purchased one of the two Lake George Amoebas donated to the fundraiser. Later that evening, I thought about the many decisions that went into the creative process, each of them inspired by memories of granny and the other artists I've been fortunate to know. And also guided by mistakes I've made in the lab.

Lots of mistakes - some of them worth repeating with paper.


  1. Oh - about the Black Velvet Art Party "Best Amoeba" award: I conspired to win by bribing one of the judges. I guess that makes her a graftic artist?

    1. This is quite thrilling, Sam! Great to see the whole process and the end result. At every turn it is reconfirmed. . . art and science go hand-in-hand.

      L, C

  2. Beautiful work Sam - it is fun to see the process!