When I look into the Gowanus Canal, I see (and smell) a toxic stew of industrial and human waste that has been fermenting into god-knows-what for decades. When Jenifer Wightman looked into this Brooklyn waterway, she saw art – created by billions and billions of microscopic Matisses.
“What I love about bacteria is that they’re very clever. They’re artists,” says Wightman, a biologist. “They synthesize their livelihoods, and in my case, they’re synthesizing pigments to make paintings.”
As an artist-in-residence at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Wightman cultivated vibrant bacteria that she collected from some of New York City’s most notorious waters -- the Gowanus Canal, Newtown Creek, the Hudson and East rivers, and the aptly named Dead Horse Bay, an old seaside site of glue and fertilizer factories. With help from local environmental groups, such as the Gowanus Dredgers and Riverkeeper, she extracted mud and water samples and poured them into hefty, steel and glass frames. Thus, began her series of living paintings, Portraits of NYC.
“They begin black because they haven’t seen light,” says Wightman, “but when given light and food, they reveal colors.”
In the tradition of a bacteria-growing device called the Winogradsky Column, she packed newspapers, eggs, sea squirts, and other organic materials into her mud collection and exposed the square containers to light. Over a period of a couple months, the seemingly lifeless muck inside transformed into bright displays of bacteria in action.
Mud from the Gowanus Canal, a federal Superfund site, became a velvety red, with smudges of orange and green interrupting the earthen fabric. The piece from Newtown Creek, Brooklyn’s other Superfund, unveiled a splatter pattern of yellow, brown, and pink akin to burnt scrambled eggs or as Wightman sees it, a “tiger print.” In the sample from Dead Horse Bay, a heavily littered body of water in Jamaica, Queens, the coastal clumps resemble an ominous mountain range, blanketed by dark greenish mist.
Wightman admits she knows little about the individual species of bacteria or why they create the colors they do, but says the portraits constantly change as the microorganisms compete for space.
“Jeni’s paintings are like petri dishes hanging from the wall,” says Sarah Christman, a filmmaker working in collaboration with Wightman. Once a species has consumed all of its resources and hit peak population within the frame’s boundaries, its numbers plummet, allowing others to grow until they, too, top out and fade away
Wightman has been creating art via these epic, albeit miniscule, battles since 2004. Before then, she helped teach a marine biology class where students created Winogradsky Columns within two-liter pop bottles. Those pigments reminded her of the 1953 Mark Rothko painting, Orange and Lilac over Ivory. “They [the bacteria] were doing the same thing: creating colorful landscapes,” she says. So she began doing it, too, later writing about her artistic method in the Journal of Visual Culture.
Now, New York City’s polluted waterways are her muse. “Waste is not ugly, it’s just poorly managed,” says Wightman. “For me, the art is like a coping mechanism because I don’t like what’s been done to Newtown Creek, for example.” Wightman sees hope in how bacteria can change toxic sludge into something beautiful. It makes her think people can change their environments for the better, too.
Jenifer Wightman will be showing Portraits of NYC on January 17 at the Westbeth Gallery in the West Village.
Images: Missy S. and Eli Chen