Artist Screen-Prints Fabrics With Bacteria

Natsai Audrey Chieza
Natsai Audrey Chieza

Is there nothing bacteria can't do? Under the careful eye of researcher and designer Natsai Audrey Chieza, the itsy-bitsy organisms have taken on an unexpected new role in the fashion industry, offering a beautiful and environmentally friendly alternative to commercial dyes.

Fashion is currently facing "an existential crisis," Chieza told Mental Floss, "around the fact that it's the second-most polluting industry in the world." It's got problems coming and going: Textile production uses huge amounts of water and yields high amounts of petrochemical waste. 

Contemplating these issues, Chieza began to wonder if the solution could be biological. She began tinkering with Streptomyces bacteria, coaxing them to release their own rich natural pigments into small swatches of silk.

Closeup of fabric inoculated with vivid purple bacteria.
Natsai Audrey Chieza

It's unlike any other printing process she's ever experienced, she explained, because the living bacteria are both invisible to the naked eye and somewhat finicky artistic collaborators. Room temperature, pH levels, and the size of their petri dish home all influence the way the microbes lay down their dye.

Chieza's background is in art and design, so once she knew she'd hit on something interesting, she started looking for scientific collaborators. After a stint working with synthetic biologists as designer-in-residence at University College London, Chieza crossed paths with Christina Agapakis, creative director at the self-described "organism design platform" Ginkgo Bioworks.

"Our expertise is in microbes and how to work with them and keep them happy," Agapakis tells Mental Floss. "We think that biology is such an amazing way to make stuff."

Two pieces of bacteria-dyed silk, one brown, one purple.
Natsai Audrey Chieza

The artist and the organism designers are now "developing a lot of different things all at the same time," Chieza says. One of their biggest questions is scale—how a microscopic process could be enlarged to dye entire garments and yards of cloth, moving "from the biological to the body to architectural."

"At Ginkgo," she continues, "we're wondering how much we can make so that it can actually plug in to the demand for material resources. How do we bridge the difference between 250 milliliters and 50,000 liters?"

Part of the puzzle involves building all-new technology to house the all-new dyeing process, and ensuring that both are environmentally sound and resource-conservative.

At every step of the process, Chieza says she asks herself, "What does this all mean? How does this relate to society? Is it actually going to solve this problem?"

We're looking forward to finding out.

Bob Dylan's Lyrics, Poetry, and Prose Showcased at Chicago's American Writers Museum

A collection of Bob Dylan poems that was auctioned off by Christie's in 2005.
A collection of Bob Dylan poems that was auctioned off by Christie's in 2005.
Stephen Chernin, Getty Images

Like a Rolling Stone, Tangled Up in Blue, Blowin’ in the Wind, and The Times They Are a-Changin’ are among Bob Dylan’s best songs, but the 77-year-old singer’s writing isn’t limited to lyrics. Dylan has also penned poems, prose, an autobiography, and a nearly four-hour movie (that got terrible reviews).

An ongoing showcase at Chicago’s American Writers Museum is paying homage to Dylan the writer. The "Bob Dylan: Electric" exhibit, which will remain on view though April 30, 2019, highlights dozens of items from Dylan’s expansive career.

“The world knows Bob Dylan as a prolific songwriter,” museum president Carey Cranston said in a statement. “'Bob Dylan: Electric’ gives the public a chance to see how his writing shaped more than just American music, but American literature as a whole.”

The period covers Dylan’s “electric” career, beginning with the time he made his electric guitar debut at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. The exact instrument he played at the festival—a 1964 sunburst Fender Stratocaster—is naturally one of the items on display.

Visitors can also check out Dylan’s personal copy of The Catcher in the Rye, which he read in the summer of 1961. He jotted down notes and drew doodles in the back of the book, including a bottle of rye and the words “good book.” (Interestingly enough, a talent agent approached Dylan the following year and asked if he’d play Holden Caulfield in a movie adaptation of the book. For better or worse, that never came to fruition.)

Dylan’s writing was recognized with a Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016. At the time, the committee's decision to award a songwriter rather than a novelist was a controversial one. The New York Times dubbed it a “disappointing choice,” while Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh (author of Trainspotting) was a little more blunt, calling it “an ill-conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.”

Nonetheless, Dylan accepted the award, eventually releasing a video detailing his literary influences. Moby-Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front, and The Odyssey are just a few of the singer-songwriter’s many inspirations.

Vinnie Ream: The Teen Who Met With Abraham Lincoln for 30 Minutes Every Day

Library of Congress // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Library of Congress // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Some of the most important people in the world have trouble getting even a few minutes of the president’s time. But in 1864, 17-year-old Lavinia “Vinnie” Ream managed to steal half an hour with Abraham Lincoln every day—for five months.

Ream made a name for herself as an artist at a young age. Word of the teen prodigy’s painting prowess quickly spread, and in 1863, Missouri Congressman James Rollins introduced her to sculptor Clark Mills. Through Mills, Ream discovered her talents included molding clay.

After creating small, medallion-sized likenesses of General Custer and many Congressmen, including Thaddeus Stevens, several senators commissioned Ream to create a marble bust—and this was just over a year after she had picked up the skill. The senators allowed Ream to choose her subject, and she picked the president—Abraham Lincoln.

Ream's friends in the Senate personally asked Lincoln to pose for the sculpture, but he declined. After hearing that she was a struggling artist from a Midwestern background not dissimilar to his own, however, Lincoln relented. “He granted me sittings for no other reason than that I was in need,” she later wrote. “Had I been the greatest sculptor in the world I am quite sure I would have been refused.”

Not only did the president agree to the sitting, he gave her a half-hour of his time every day for five months—no small sum of time for a man in such demand. “It seemed that he used this half-hour as a time for relaxation, for he always left instructions that no one was to be admitted during that time,” Ream said. “He seemed to find a strange sort of companionship in being with me, although we talked but little.” He occasionally talked about his son Willie, who had died two years before. The stories sometimes moved him to tears, and he told Vinnie that she reminded him of Willie. Lincoln "never told a funny story to me. He rarely smiled," Ream later recalled.

After Lincoln's fateful night at Ford's Theatre, Congress hired Ream to create a memorial statue of the fallen president, making her the youngest artist—and the first woman—to receive a commission from the U.S. government.

Though she had already proved that she could create a remarkable likeness of Lincoln in bust form, not everyone on the commission was convinced she would be up to the task of sculpting a full-length version. “Having in view the youth and inexperience of Miss Ream, and I will go further, and say, having in view her sex, I shall expect a complete failure in the execution of this work,” Senator Jacob Merritt Howard said.

But Ream had the last laugh: Her work still graces the Capitol Rotunda today.

Vinnie Ream's sculpture of Abraham Lincoln still stands in the Capital Rotunda
USCapitol via Flickr // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

This article originally ran in 2016.

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