Microorganisms - CODAworx


Submitted by Cheryl Safren

Client: Ohio Arts Council, Percent for Art Program for Miami University Oxford, Ohio

Location: Valley Stream, NY, United States

Completion date: 2021

Artwork budget: $50,000

Project Team

Commissioned artist, researcher, fabricator

Cheryl Safren

Proofreader, webpage designer

Dr. Joseph M. Carlin, Professor and Assistant Chair of Microbiology

Miami University

info and access to site

John Porchowsky, Project Manager

Miami University

arranged meetings, facilitated contract and payment

Kathy Signorino, Percent for Art Director, Ohio Arts Council

Ohio Arts Council


22 circular chemistry on copper panels of unicellular microorganisms hang on walls above tall furniture on the first and second floors of Pearson Hall. Pearson is a biology building on the campus of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Below each 20” copper art piece is a plaque containing the name of the microorganism and a QR code. When the QR code is scanned by your phone it takes you to the Biological Science Art Gallery. On the left side of this webpage 22 microorganisms are listed. If you click on any of them a picture of the artwork, a photo of and information about that organism appears.
This installation does more than compliment the science that goes on within the building. It’s not just art about science but also art created by science. Some colors are produced by a transparent oxide film deposited on the metal surface. The colors develop when part of the light striking the oxide surface reflects and part passes through the film before reflecting off the metal below. When the delayed light reappears and combines with the surface light waves, they may either reinforce or cancel each other, generating a specific hue. The thickness of the film dictates the color. Some chem reactions I employ produce coarse and grainy textures, while others, shiny or gossamer ones.


In the RFQ, the University stated that the location has strong student and faculty interaction. They requested that the commissioned work be reflective of the sciences located in Pearson Hall and promote the teaching within the building.
I wanted my artwork to motivate students to be creative thinkers and persistent researchers. My process is rooted in experimentation and therefore reinforces the mission of a scientific institution. Hours of research and experimentation have allowed me to control and manipulate chemicals to create these images.
In another area of the building there is a large tile mosaic created by Charlie Harper. This wonderful artwork depicts plants, insects, and animals. It was created before the existence of the Department of Microbiology and doesn’t include any unicellular microorganisms. I wanted my artwork to focus on that which was not depicted in Charlie’s mural. So, another goal was to update the depiction of the research taking place in the building. The educational component in my work was so attractive to a Committee member that she suggested bringing public school children to the site. Also, a goal was that I wanted to make sure that the commissioned art would not require any maintenance.


When choosing which unicellular microorganisms to depict it was important to represent all five types, bacteria, protists, archaea, viruses, and fungi. An interesting array of organisms was achieved by choosing those that were most different from each other in color and texture. I shared an incomplete list with Dr. Actis, Chair of Microbiology and Dr. Crist, Chair of the Department of Biodiversity and asked each if there were organisms on the list they wished to eliminate or add. With the list complete, I purchased my materials and made chemical test strips. I fabricated all 22 panels myself. Next, I composed information about each organism as it would appear on the Biological Science Art Gallery webpage. Viewers access this university webpage when scanning the QR code on the plaque beneath each art panel. Dr. Carlin, assistant chair of Microbiology, proofread my text and created the webpage. During the pandemic getting the circular frames necessary was challenging. I was able to get the frames shipped two at a time from Canada. I securely packed all the panels and plaques and drove with a friend from New York to western Ohio. Triad Construction does a lot of work for the University and did an excellent job of installing the circular panels and the plaques.

Additional Information

To take in the full effect of this work, engaged viewers might find themselves moving from one side of the work to the other, and then squatting low before rising on tippy toes. Each change in the angle defined by the eye, artwork, and light source changes the work's appearance. When light hits the metal substrate at different angles the colors appear different. When the light dims or strikes at oblique angles, the color becomes saturated. Shifting light on the copper surface and viewer movement are the kinesthetic forces altering perception, allowing us to discover new and interesting things each time we view the work.