What do you see?

By Kate Nichols
Paintings in progress at Djerassi studio. Paintings in progress in Djerassi studio. 

A few weeks before heading down to Djerassi to participate in Scientific Delirium Madness, I packed up my messy, homemade gelatin lenses and took them over to the California Academy of Sciences. I used these lenses to photograph their collection of Xerces blue specimens for a series of paintings I’m beginning here at Djerassi. The Xerces blue butterfly was endemic to San Francisco’s western edge and it was the first Northern American butterfly to go extinct due to urban development. Recently, Xerces blue been identified as a candidate for “de-extinction” by the Long Now Foundation’s Revive and Restore initiative. Working with these images in my studio at Djerassi, I paint the lensed butterflies enlarged and distorted. White wisps elongate, drag, and curl along the edge of one painting. These inscrutable forms suggest divination systems—glimpses of the future in an inkblot or in the silty grounds left on the bottom of a coffee cup. What we see in such things reveals much about our desires and our fears. Me, I see an animal liquefied, ready to assume new forms. In another image, I see ruddy brown tufts morph into metallic technicolor greens, evoking both a painter’s palette and a petri dish growing wing material. Looking at these, I ask myself: What is the relationship between creating a painted likeness of a butterfly and engineering a butterfly in a lab? If there is a continuum between “lifelike” (or mimetic) painting and bioengineering—and I believe there is—how might such questions help us better understand the nature of both practices? What impulses do they share? What anxieties do they bring forth? What desires drive one life form to mimic another? I feel incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to explore these questions in paint and in conversation with a community of brilliant artists and scientists here at Djerassi. More soon, Kate www.katenicholsstudio.com