Microscopes as Art Tools? Yes!

When I was young, I really liked microscopes. I had one, a little more than a toy, but definitely made for children, that I used to have fun exploring with and making my own slides of things I found. One year when teaching full time, a classroom parent I had really wanted us to have a nice microscope and raised the money and gifted our class one. It was great. Each week I would put a new set of slides out for the children to explore based on the plants and animals we were studying in botany and biology at the time. They LOVED it! Unfortunately, during neither of these microscopes experiences did I ever consider using them for art. I just thought of them as a tool for the discipline of science.

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This is so similar to the set I had. My Microscope was black and came with a few more things, but a simple set that inculdes supplies for making slides can provide hours of exploration  for a child. This one is for sale on Etsy.

It wasn’t until I discovered the work of turn of the century German artist and scientist Ernst Haeckel that the microscope and the world of art collided for me. A contemporary of Darwin and a fierce advocate for evolutionary theory, Haeckel came under both praise and criticism for his work. He would often use a microscope to draw organisms he discovered that were foreign to the average human eye, but was accused of embellishing these creatures for art’s sake. While that is it’s own discussion, I think his art is beautiful and that his example of using a microscope to see in such a detailed way to create intricate drawings is a great idea. I only wish I had had my students draw what they were observing in the microscope!!

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The work of Ernst Haeckel. He often made composite prints of a species such as this one. His ocean-y ones are my favorites.

Fast forward a century to the research and digital photography of Pam Soltis and Terry Ashley and you have a modern day version of Haeckel’s essence. These women consider microscopy, the act of using a microscope, an art form in itself. These women take beautiful digital photographs of plants and them overlay them with an image of the cellular structure of the particular plant to create etherial and unique nature photos.

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Doesn’t the cellular overlay add an intriguing quality to the photography that makes you want to learn more? The borders allow you to get a good view of the cellular structure, I think.

In this exhibition dubbed Botanical Chords: The Art and Science of Plants and Cells, each photograph is accompanied with interesting botanical information about the plants. Through this art and science combination, the artists hope that where the beauty and the science intersect they will invoke in their viewers wonder toward native plants (and the awareness of the relationship we all have with nature) that they feel as scientists, artists, and naturalists.

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The card allows you to see the original photos before they are compiled and provides scientific and artistic information and inspiration about the plant and the intention behind the piece. Science + Sentiment = 🙂

So here again I find myself drawn to those artists and scientists who consciously strive to maintain the balance between science and sentiment just like the Nature-Study advocates and educators. I feel helping children, in both the classroom and the backyard, discover the joy this balance brings is perhaps one of the most valuable lessons we can provide. I hope that these artists bring a little inspiration to the ways in which you can incorporate art into your microscope and science lessons across the board! What a wonderful way to help children really see nature on multiple levels!

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Drawing with microscopes at the Florida Natural History Museum

I would love to hear how you are using (or are inspired to use) microscopes and art and/or how you combine science and art in your classroom, backyard, or community garden! Please share!!

Seeds to Sprout:

More examples of Ernst Haeckel’s work

More on Ernst Haeckel the man

Botanical Chords Exhibit information

Terry Ashley’s artwork

Information on Pam Solits’ lab research

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