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From Studio to Lab

Lucy Kim uses science to turn simple screen prints into organic creations

Lucy Kim likes to experiment. The award-winning visual artist and CFA associate professor has made a career of manipulating materials into paintings, sculptures, or hybrids that can’t be easily categorized. She has worked with urethane resin, fiberglass, epoxy, oil and acrylic paints, silicone, aluminum foil, burlap, and wood (and that’s just a partial list). She’s built 3D textures into paintings and mashed 3D busts until they’re almost two-dimensional.

Now she’s experimenting with a new material that shapes our lives in myriad ways: melanin. Kim is creating art with the natural pigment that gives our eyes, hair, and skin their color, using it to make captivating monochromatic screen prints. But printing with melanin isn’t like mixing up a bunch of dyes. In organisms, including humans, it takes a series of incredibly complex chemical processes to produce the pigment. To make these prints, Kim has had to swap her artist’s studio for a scientist’s lab.

Lucy Kim, an associate professor at CFA, is experimenting with making screen prints with melanin, the natural pigment that gives our eyes, hair, and skin their color. Pictured here are vials and containers of melanin.

An Idea Blooms

In 2018, Kim arrived as the new artist in residence at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, excited to push her art in new directions. The sprawling biomedical research center in Cambridge, Mass., has hundreds of researchers working on genome editing and the biological roots of disease, and the artist in residence program is meant to spark creative thinking—so Kim began networking.

She booked 15-minute meetings with the busy scientists and signed up for tours so she could peek inside their labs. After toying with ideas connected to gene editing—a hot topic in late 2018, after a Chinese scientist claimed he’d created the first human babies with edited genes—Kim moved on. “I just couldn’t figure out something that felt organic with my process and my work,” she says. That’s when she returned to an idea that she’d abandoned several years earlier: creating paint with melanin.

Kim had explored ideas of human appearance in past projects and had first tried to create a melanin-based paint in 2014, reaching out to a science supply company online. After answering their suspicious questions—“Who are you? Why are you requesting lab materials?”—they sold her one gram of laboratory-grade synthetic melanin. It came in powder form and cost nearly $400.

Kim only made enough paint—by mixing the powder with linseed oil—to cover a tiny swatch of paper. “I was too scared to use it,” she says. Besides, “It’s pretty boring looking—it’s just granular black pigment.” She tabled the project.

Her residency at the Broad Institute provided a good reason to revisit the idea. Kim posted a note on the Broad Institute’s Slack channel and got a response from Sam Myers, a research scientist who specializes in proteomics, the study of proteins. Though his field has nothing to do with melanin, Myers was interested in art and intrigued by Kim’s project. He offered to share his small lab space. Together, the artist and the scientist found a different, more affordable way to obtain melanin: growing their own. Kim’s scientific education was about to begin.

Designing a Process

Working with Myers, Kim discovered the work of Guillermo Gosset at Instituto de Biotecnología, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. Gosset had developed a strain of the bacteria E. coli that would produce melanin when incubated in a lab. “Where does he sell it?” she wondered, before Myers explained that scientists often share information freely. “I had no idea. You have to share, otherwise no one would get anything done.” Kim contacted Gosset and he sent her a small tab of bacteria-infused paper. Instead of creating a melanin-based paint, this time she decided to try another art technique she’d used in the past: silk screen printing.

With Myers’ help, Kim learned how to culture the bacteria, creating a liquid chemical mixture. Their first attempts to turn that mixture into melanin involved brushing the liquid bacteria onto a small sheet, then placing it in an incubator where the brownish pigment began to flourish. But to transition to screen printing, Kim needed to give that bacteria mixture an ink-like viscosity.

Kim must work with a strain of the bacteria E. coli that produces melanin to get the pigment for her screen prints. Here, she examines two plates streaked with E. coli cells.

“The biggest challenge was that I just didn’t know how to do anything in the lab,” she says.

She combined the bacteria with hydrocolloids—thickeners often used in cosmetics and gastronomy—to make an “ink.” Although it goes onto the page clear, when the bacteria ink is placed into a warm incubator, the melanin springs to life, blooming in shades of brown and black. Kim repeats the culturing process for each printing to create the new bacteria cells she needs to work with.

Squeegeeing the E. coli ink across a screen to create a test print. The ink goes on clear, but when the bacteria ink is placed into a warm incubator, the melanin springs to life and the brownish print appears.

Kim uses a screen made from fine polyester mesh stretched tightly over an aluminum frame. She covers the screen in a photo emulsion, a light sensitive chemical mixture. Once that dries, she overlays an image printed on clear acetate; exposure to light then burns the image into the emulsion, which then washes off wherever the image was burned and opens up the mesh’s holes to allow ink to pass through. Kim then squeegees the viscous bacteria across the screen and onto a sheet of paper, which she places in an incubator to create a print.

For her melanin project, she began by creating test prints with images from past projects. Only over three to four days in the incubator does the melanin darken and bloom across the paper. Because it’s a natural process, Kim can’t control whether the melanin will maintain the screen’s original detail, create mysterious patterns, or lend the image an eerie blurriness. The process can also fail entirely. If the paper gets too dry, melanin doesn’t grow. If there’s contamination, mold can grow.

“Sometimes, I have no idea why it ends up one way or another,” she says.

Watch: Kim discusses her project creating prints with melanin. She began the project while an artist in residence at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. Video courtesy of the Broad Institute

 

A Distorted Theme

The muted brown tones of Kim’s melanin prints are a stark visual departure from other recent projects. An ongoing series of sculptural paintings, Waves, features oil paint on rippling slabs of fiberglass and urethane resin, created from casts of a beach’s surface. In one, a repeating pattern of deep blue and black creatures look like crows from one angle and rabbits from another. Working with so many materials can require a lot of painstaking steps, but at some point Kim often yields some control to chance, letting the material do what it wants to do, just as she’s done with the melanin project.

Test prints depicting birds. The muted brown tones of Kim’s melanin prints are a visual departure from some of her recent colorful, textural projects.

“Distortion is a big thing in my work,” Kim says. “But you have to be able to recognize something to know that it’s distorted.” For a series of pieces created between 2016 and 2020, Kim used epoxy, urethane resin, and fiberglass to cast and replicate the likenesses of three people. Then she flattened the casts and framed the cartoonish results. Her three subjects were carefully selected: a fitness trainer, plastic surgeon, and geneticist—all people who alter the human body in their own work.

Another defining characteristic of Kim’s art is scale. The pieces in her plastic surgeon/fitness trainer/geneticist series measure 92 by 60 inches each. Rejuvenate and Repeat, a vibrant cascade of yellow and green oil paint, resin, epoxy, and fiberglass, is 19.5 feet tall.

Two years into the melanin project, Kim is working out how to make larger prints. Her first attempts were about 5 by 7 inches—small enough to fit into basic lab incubators. Her goal is to work up to 3 by 4 feet, a size that will require a walk-in warm room the size of a closet to incubate.

The Art of Science, The Science of Art

Just over a year into Kim’s residency at the Broad Institute, the coronavirus pandemic erupted. COVID research immediately became the top priority, and she lost her lab access. Fortunately, in her search for ways to make larger prints—and have less competition for incubator time—Kim had already connected with John Celenza, an associate professor of biology at BU, and he agreed to give her access to his lab. At BU, she’s also getting help from the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, which provides stipends for students who develop their own research based on her project. “I’ve been so moved,” Kim says. “I rely on the kindness of a lot of people.”

“To me, the point of being an artist is to see something new. You’re always trying to find a new path, confronting a new thing.”

The integration of her artistic process into a laboratory has been a natural fit for Kim. “Experimentation and surprise—and in some ways, disappointment—are my lifeline,” she says. “To me, the point of being an artist is to see something new. You’re always trying to find a new path, confronting a new thing.”

She’s found kindred spirits in Myers, Celenza, and many of the scientists she’s consulted. “Every time I describe why I think art is amazing, when I’m talking to research scientists, it’s like ‘That’s exactly how I describe science.’ The whole point of it is to learn.”

Befitting a project born from such a process, Kim is producing something unique. “There’s no precedent for doing this,” she says of using E. coli to make melanin prints.

A Medium with Many Meanings

In much of her work, Kim has played with ideas of human appearance, and that theme is what first led her to consider working with melanin. “It’s the most dominant thing that affects [human] appearance in terms of coloration,” she says.

Melanin also plays an important role in protecting skin cells from ultraviolet light. But the nuances of melanin’s biological functions can be overshadowed by its role in creating perceptions of racial identity. “It’s a provocative material,” Kim says. And its use in a work of art carries many levels of meaning.

During the question and answer portion of an online talk about her project, one viewer asked Kim if printing on white paper might further the stereotypes that white is pure and black is a blemish. Another asked if the decision to print on cotton paper was a commentary on slavery. It was not—Kim needs to use archival-quality paper, which is typically a cotton blend.

“It’s such an important topic,” Kim says. “I want to be mindful and educate myself.”
Physically and philosophically, Kim’s melanin prints remain very much a work in progress. What will her final prints depict—and what meaning will they convey? “Honestly, I don’t know yet,” she says.

So Kim will keep experimenting, refining her process and working on larger prints. And she welcomes the extra scrutiny that national events have brought on her work. “It makes me learn more,” she says.