If you’ve ever wanted to put art under a microscope, then you won’t want to miss the National Gallery’s new exhibition titled “Luminescent Forms: Art Under the Microscope,” which runs from Feb. 6 to April 17.
Natalie Urquhart, Gallery director, is the curator of the exhibit, which bridges the gap between art and science by illuminating miniscule organic forms called “foraminifera” found in the sand.
A series of tiny single-celled organisms, which have been magnified and beautifully photographed by German mechanical engineer Roland Verreet, will be featured alongside sculptures that have been reimagined in glass by Caymanian Davin Ebanks.
Verreet is a mechanical engineer by trade and his work involves analyzing structural damage beneath a microscope. However, as a creative outlet, he studies foraminifera (called “forams” for short).
Drawing inspiration from 19th century naturalists, Verreet gathers samples of the ancient life form and captures their intricate structures under a microscope, transforming them into stunning works of art. He studies the natural history of these creatures and the mathematical laws behind their geometry, and although photography is a hobby, he finds it a unique challenge capturing objects that are smaller than 1mm.
According to a National Gallery press release, forams have existed for 540 million years but were only discovered around 1820. They have swarmed the earth’s oceans for millions of years, and their history was first recorded by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus (5th century B.C.), who noted that the limestone of the Egyptian pyramids contained large numbers of the species.
Today forams remain abundant in our oceans, or as fossils (known as tests) in ocean sediment and sand. Despite their tiny size, they play a key role in the food chain, as well as acting as bio-stratigraphic markers and climate change indicators.
As a member of a network of scientists and amateurs who collect small samples of sand from places all over the world (including Cayman), Veereet is doing his part to study environmental change on a wider scale.
Sand as a muse
Sharing his images with friends on island, Verreet’s hobby ultimately led to an invitation by Urquhart to exhibit his work at the National Gallery. She said she was immediately taken with the remarkable beauty and symmetry of his work.
“An exhibition of forams, displayed in large format, was an intriguing concept,” she said.
“Rather than being artwork inspired by the beauty of our natural environment, these images celebrate nature itself as a work of art.”
Seen under the microscope, the glowing forms literally appear as though sculpted in glass, which led Urquhart to take the exhibition one step further by inviting Ebanks to reimagine the forams in glass.
Ebanks, whose most recent major project was the installation of the large-scale permanent glass and concrete sculpture “Adjacent” that marks the entrance to the National Gallery, created a series of 16 sculptural forms, drawing on the anthropomorphic shapes of the forams.
“I see the ‘Non-Verbal Foram Study’ series as a continuation of my previous work, but rather than focusing on the macro – landscape, environment, cultural history – these pieces are more intimate, inspired by the micro, by the details that provide a foundation for Cayman, literally: sand,” he said.
“So much of our culture and lives are based [literally] on this ubiquitous material, so this exhibit seemed like a great opportunity to work those ideas into concrete works. Glass seemed perfect because it combined qualities of translucence, opacity and fluidity, the same qualities I noted in the microscopic images of the forams.”
Supporting the exhibition, the gallery will also hold a series of lectures and screenings in February and March to learn the role forams play in the Cayman Islands’ environment.
For example, “The Secret Life of Sand” by Verreet will be held on Feb. 7, and “A Glass Look: A Special Lecture” by Davin Ebanks will take place on March 11.
For those interested in the science behind the art, there will also be a series of tours for schools and families, including a pop-up education room known as “The Sand Lab” that will be created specifically for the exhibition. It will be a hands-on learning space to allow students to explore the world of foraminifera and study their tiny forms under a microscope.
“This exhibition is about art and about science, about the discovery of an unknown world surrounding the Cayman Islands, and about education and respect for the environment and its tiniest life forms,” Verreet said.
“Give your children a microscope and they will discover the world around them. They will start to ask questions, and they will experience the thrill of finding the answers. They will develop a passion for discovery, and they will learn to respect their environment.”
Admission to the exhibition is free, and tours can be booked directly with the National Gallery’s education department by contacting: [email protected] For more information regarding the program events, email [email protected] or call 945-8111.
He is one of the world’s most knowledgeable experts in the field of steel wire, having worked for more than 40 years designing steel wire ropes for cranes, as well as for aerial tramways, mining and offshore applications. In his forensic work relating to steel wire rope failures, Verreet uses sophisticated digital and scanning electron microscopes.
Experimenting one day, he used these instruments to look at samples of sand from the Cayman Islands and found that most of the supposed grains of sand were actually of organic origin. Fascinated by these tiny single-celled animals, he started the painstaking process of cleaning, analyzing and photographing them.
Born and raised in Cayman, he is a sculptor whose current work primarily uses the medium of glass to explore his personal and cultural history. Most of his work has included components of glass, while still embracing whatever materials and disciplines fit the work at hand.
Over the years he has taught in various glass departments in universities in the U.S., and his recent glass sculptures are on display at 21st Century Glass, a contemporary exhibition of glass sculpture at Salisbury University. Both his paintings and sculptures are represented in the permanent collections of the National Gallery.