When I am centrifuging nanoparticles in a lab, isolating pigment from hydrozoa, or weighing salts to feed a bacterial culture, I am digging deeply into painting’s past to tease out its future. 

My work draws upon a long tradition of painters who developed their own media. Embedding this historical context within my seemingly futuristic work—involving nanotechnology and synthetic biology—allows me to explore the charged space between art and science in new ways.

Take, for example, one long-term project I began as the first artist-in-residence at the Alivisatos nanoscience lab at the University of California Berkeley in which I create paintings made with nanoparticles I’ve synthesized. In some of these paintings, silver nanoparticles commingle with silver passages I create using Victorian-era mirror-making methods. Combining these allows me to explore the rich history of nanotechnology, which, surprisingly, began with artists and craftsmen.

My paintings made with nanomaterials are experiments in visual instability. They flash and hide, flickering in and out of visibility as a viewer moves around them. This, coupled with imagery seemingly composed of vapors, gives a viewer the sense they are witnessing something in the act of becoming.  

My new series of paintings and lab-based artworks is inspired by two butterflies—one that scientists are working to bring back from extinction, and another that scientists have engineered to alter its wings’ patterning. In the fall, I’ll visit the Martin Lab at George Washington University, where I will learn to use CRISPR Cas9 gene-editing technology to essentially “paint” new spots on butterflies’ wings.

In all, this project explores the desires and anxieties driving painting and synthetic biology alike—the prospect of transcending our corruptible flesh, and of participating in the creation of life (and the life-like.)

Such possibilities speak to something vital, something deep at the root of human nature. We find ourselves in a pivotal moment in human history. Within our lifetimes, synthetic biology will bring about great changes in the ways we live and die—indeed, in what it means to be human. And consequently, in what it means to be a painter.