Artist Luke Jerram is a UK-based sculptor whose glass sculptures of microscopic life make the invisible visible. I was instantly transfixed by his sculptures' delicacy and intense beauty. For me, something is captured in these sculptures that is lost in the false-color scanning electron microscope images we typically see of viruses and other extremely small subjects - the frailty of life, the beauty in vulnerability. I contacted him over email with some questions about his work:

KM: What inspired your glass microbiology collection? Are you generally interested in science communication?

LJ: Because I'm colorblind, I'm interested in how we see the world and in exploring the edges of perception. Early on in my research I discovered that viruses have no color as they are smaller than the wavelength of light. Viruses are so small they can only be seen under an electron microscope (EM) as quite undefined grainy images. This great slide bar animation shows how small they really are. The virus sculptures are approximately one million times larger than the actual viruses.

For me the transparent and colorless glassworks consider how the artificial coloring of scientific microbiological imagery affects our understanding of these phenomena. See these examples of HIV imagery. If some images are colored for scientific purposes, and others altered simply for aesthetic reasons, how can a viewer tell the difference? How many people believe viruses are brightly colored? Are there any color conventions and what kind of ‘presence’ do pseudocolored images have that ‘naturally’ colored specimens don’t? How does the choice of different colors affect their reception?

KM: What has the public reaction been to your viruses?

LJ: For some people, the sculptures are personal. Here's letter from a stranger I received in Sept ’09 about the HIV artworks:

Dear Luke,

I just saw a photo of your glass sculpture of HIV.

I can’t stop looking at it. Knowing that millions of those guys are in me, and will be a part of me for the rest of my life. Your sculpture, even as a photo, has made HIV much more real for me than any photo or illustration I’ve ever seen. It’s a very odd feeling seeing my enemy, and the eventual likely cause of my death, and finding it so beautiful.

Thank you.

KM: How is glass uniquely suited to depicting viruses? Are there any ways in which you have to compromise accuracy because of the sculpting medium?

LJ: Creating them in glass shows viruses as they actually are - colorless. By extracting the color from the imagery and creating jewel-like beautiful sculptures in glass, a complex tension arises between the artworks’ beauty and what they represent. But working in glass is also restrictive in that my virus artworks are hard and impermeable, unlike real viruses.

We work within the limitations of both scientific understanding of a virus and the craft of glassblowing. Sometimes I come up with designs that are simply too fragile to create in glass; the force of gravity would cause them to collapse. But since we first started making these works in 2004, what we can achieve in glass has become far more complex. We're now creating objects which are held inside objects, inside objects, like this Malaria artwork:

KM: How do you collaborate with scientists to accurately depict these viruses?

LJ: The sculptures are designed in consultation with virologists from the University of Bristol. We have to piece together our understanding by comparing grainy electron microscope images with abstract chemical models and existing diagrams. I liaise with the scientists and ask questions about a model. How is the RNA packed in? Does it actually look like this or that? Often scientists don't know the answers for sure and scientific understanding of a virus also changes year by year.

Over time, scientific understanding of the virus improves and so I have to amend my models accordingly. For example, “I’m currently in dialogue with Professor Richard Condit at the University of Florida about his research on the structure of the smallpox virus. He has published papers that show a very different understanding of the internal structure. I now need to consider whether to create a new model or wait until his model has become more widely accepted by the scientific community.

As a part of my research I create technical drawings for my glassblowers which are effectively signed off by the scientists before anything gets made. I often take on commissions by universities to visualize their microbiology research. My work can help raise the public profile of a virus and the institution's research, as it did with the virus Ev71.

KM: I understand you employ professional glass blowers in the making of these sculptures. What is your role as intermediary between scientists and glass blowers?

LJ: I have a basic understanding of microbiology and also of what can be practically achieved in glass. I create technical drawings for my glass team to follow. We often have to make several prototypes before the final artwork gets made.

As well as liaising between the partners and creating drawings from research, I also take responsibility for employing the glass team, photographing and exhibiting the artworks, promotion, admin, marketing, sales, etc. All works are signed by both the glassblowers and me. Its very much a collaborative process.

The artworks are made through a process of scientific lamp work (KM note: check out my previous posts on scientific glass blowers here and here). Its the same skills you use to make distillery or test tube. There was a time that every university would have a glass workshop where glassblowers would be making equipment for the chemistry department. Most of these department have gone now as more and more glass components are being manufactured abroad. Here in the UK these skills are being lost. Many remaining glassblowers find themselves making christmas tree decorations and ships in bottles.

KM: I'm also intrigued by your sculptures that translate the data contained in a line graph into three dimensions (stock market crash, earthquakes, etc). What was the thinking behind the first one?

LJ: The earthquake sculpture was made to contemplate the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Again like the glass Microbiology there is a tension created between the beauty of the object and what it represents.

I'm interested in scientific communication, in exploring how data is read and can be represented and interpreted.

To create the sculpture, a seismogram of the earthquake was rotated using computer aided design and then printed in 3 dimensions using rapid prototyping technology. I was keen to create an object that is as pure as possible which didn't involve the hand of a maker. Rapid prototyping enables this.

The artwork measures 30cm x 20cm and represents 9 minutes of the earthquake.

KM: Why did you choose to project the graph's shapes on a cylinder rather than "extruding" them flat like a landscape?

LJ: Good idea!


More glass virus images at Luke Jerram's Glass Microbiology website

List of Jerram's current Exhibitions

Buy prints of Jerram's glass microbiology series

Luke Jerram Complete Portfolio

Follow on Twitter @lukejerram

Orrrrrrr, bid for Aeolus, Jerram's giant singing wind sculpture - bids start at $2!