On Thursday, Feb. 20, students and faculty convened in the Buchwald-Wright Gallery to see Kate Nichols ’04 discuss her works, some of which are currently on display as part of the Alumnae: 50 Years exhibit. While a student at Kenyon, Nichols learned about the history of painting and how traditional Renaissance artists created their own materials. This inspired her to explore this idea in a modern context by creating and using completely synthetic materials. One theme Nichols referenced repeatedly while summarizing her art career is the blending of art and science; she mixes painting traditions that have been followed for hundreds of years with cutting-edge technology such as gene editing. Her extremely experimental body of work forces the viewer to ask themselves what defines a painting in today’s evolving art world.
Just after college, Nichols became very interested in replicating the colors and shades found in parts of nature, particularly those found in fish scales and bug shells. She attempted to recreate these effects with traditional pigmented paint, but found it impossible. After investigating, Nichols found that it was because these iridescent colors were created not by pigments but by nanoparticles that are smaller than visible light, normally completely invisible to the invisible eye. Years later, she realized that laboratories investigating nanotechnology could help her find a way to paint with these nanoparticles. She reached out to a lab in San Francisco and they invited her to be their artist in residence for 10 years so that she could put paint to canvas.
Initially, Nichols was only able to present these nanoparticle paints on glass. Deepening her work, she studied ways of presenting them on a more papery material. She researched more organic substrates that she could use and discovered a bacteria that creates cellular masses so that they can float in liquids to have access to oxygen. When these masses are dried, they shrink and resemble a skin-like material.
“I originally thought that I would use these as a substrate for my nanoparticle paintings,” Nichols said. “But once I started making them, I thought, ‘I don’t think they need me’ … I didn’t have to draw on them.” This started a new body of work for her as she explored the creation of these artificial skins.
Finally, her current exploration of cutting-edge gene science has led to her interest in how painting can be incorporated in gene editing and specifically with CRISPR, a DNA program which allows for relatively easy modifications of genes in living organisms. One of her recent works was a series of detailed oil paintings of zoomed-in portions of butterfly wings which have been genetically modified to have color abnormalities, which allowed her to tap into traditional painting techniques while exploring what future forms of painting may be like. The butterfly’s genetic edits were described as the scientist painting new colors onto the butterfly. Reflecting on this, Nichols wondered what new scientific discoveries will contribute to the art world.
“It’s interesting to me to think about what it will mean to be a painter in fifty years, or a hundred years,” she said.
In her works, Nichols continues to explore what it means to be a painter in our modernizing world: emphasizing how current human innovations clash and meld with nature and exploring what happens when one combines old with new, and synthetic with organic.