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NYC artist cultivates bacteria to create ‘living paintings’

As it turns out, one person’s trash really is another’s treasure. Jenifer Wightman, an artist-in-residence at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, has cultivated bacteria from some of New York City’s dirtiest waterways to create a series of living paintings called Portraits of NYC.

OnEarth.org reports that Wightman collected mud and water samples from “the Gowanus Canal, Newtown Creek, the Hudson and East rivers, and the aptly named Dead Horse Bay” and poured them into steel and glass frames, where she also packed in newspapers, eggs, and other organic materials.

Wightman exposed the containers to light, and after a couple of months, they turned from “lifeless muck” into “bright displays of bacteria in action.”

“What I love about bacteria is that they’re very clever. They’re artists,” Wightman, who is also a biologist, told OnEarth.org. “They synthesize their livelihoods, and in my case, they’re synthesizing pigments to make paintings.”

“Jeni’s paintings are like petri dishes hanging from the wall,” Sarah Christman, a filmmaker collaborating with Wightman, told OnEarth.org.

The “paintings” are constantly changing color, because once a species of bacteria runs out of resources and its population peaks, it dies out and allows another species to restart the cycle.

Wightman says she doesn’t fully understand why certain species of bacteria create the colors that they do, but she has been making bacteria art for years now.

“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.”

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