CYMBELLA TRIPTYCH (2017) 24″ x 93″

CYMBELLA TRIPTYCH (2017) 24″ x 93″

Cymbella Triptych is a microbiological portrait, a dramatic presentation of a tiny living organism called a diatom. It is knitted from cotton yarn in dark brown and deep yellow colors, and its three parts measure 24” x 93” in total. The colors were chosen to reflect the fact that diatoms, though they are plants and contain chlorophyll, also have pigments that render them gold or brown in color rather than green.

Diatoms come in thousands of varieties and are abundant all over the world, but most people will never get a detailed look at one. This diatom is of the species Cymbella neogena* and is about 100 microns (1/10 of a millimeter) in length. Diatoms are microscopic algae that form their cell walls–which look like shells but are called frustules–out of silicon, which means they are essentially made from glass.  Marine diatoms are responsible for a huge portion of the carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere and deposited on the ocean floor, thus reducing the effects of global warming. Diatoms are widely used in the study of the ecological history and health of bodies of water, or of places where there has been water in the past.

I am intensely interested in diatoms and microscopy, and this work has allowed me to begin connecting those interests with my artwork for the first time. The piece is the final result of a long series of technical and artistic processes:

  • I began by collecting a sample of water from the Florida Everglades at coordinates 25.760703, -80.561372 (see map below).

cymbella triptych collection location map

  • I then used techniques developed by limnologists and paleoecologists to clean and isolate the diatoms in this sample.
  • The specimens were mounted on slides with a special high-refractive index adhesive, necessary in order to see the “glass” diatoms against the glass slide and cover slip they are mounted between.
  • I next studied the slides using a microscope with an oil immersion lens to find and photograph this specimen.
  • I used open-source software to stack, merge and stitch a dozen photos to make one large, detailed image.
  • I edited this image in Photoshop to produce a sort of diatom “glamour shot” that would show off the beauty of this tiny, miraculous object, and adapted it to the special requirements of knitted images so that it would look like a 3-dimensional object when viewed at a very large scale.
  • I used Photoshop to produce a digital pattern that my vintage knitting machine can read.
  • I knitted the three separate pieces (24” x 31” each) that comprise the artwork, and finally…
  • I mounted them on separate custom-made internal frames with wraparound, attached knitted edgings.

I believe this work to be unique in its particular embodiment of what knitters would call a “sheep-to-shawl” process—that is, the performing of all the steps in removing wool from a sheep and turning it into a shawl. In this case the process extends from collecting the sample in nature to completing a large knitted artwork featuring one tiny organism found in the sample. It may also be the largest physical image of a diatom ever produced, at more than 23,000 times the length of the actual specimen.

*Many thanks to the Yahoo Groups Diatom Forum for help with definitive identification of Cymbella neogena.

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