Paintings merge art and science

Creatures that are too small to be seen with the naked eye are the central characters in Shoshanah Dubiner's dramatic, colorful paintings.

Her imaginative worlds of microscopic bacteria, DNA and protozoa — blown up into large-scale paintings — will be on display beginning on Monday and lasting through March 23 at Southern Oregon University's Thorndike Gallery.

"The real trick is to not be just a scientific illustrator, but to bring in my personal feelings and associations," Dubiner said. "I want to create another vision, another world."

The Ashland artist has made a career out of merging art and science ever since she began designing exhibits for different departments at the California Academy of Sciences in the 1970s.

"I was always learning something new, and then I got to do something artistic with the information," said Dubiner, who has designed exhibits for different institutions exploring everything from petroleum to Arabic advances in math.

She had a fairly traditional approach to painting until she began experimenting with "process painting" — a spontaneous, intuitive method that eschews planning out compositions in advance.

Her vivid paintings now have a fluid, organic feel.

But Dubiner hasn't shifted away from learning about science. In 2007, she took a cell biology course at SOU that still informs her work.

"The pictures and diagrams in the textbooks just blew my mind," she said. "It was amazing. I used drawing as a way of learning. For example, I would draw a diagram of algae, but I would transform it through color. It took on a life of its own."

For added inspiration, Dubiner also looks to microscopic photo competitions put on by microscope makers such as Nikon.

"Microscopic images are becoming more and more beautiful. Scientists are adding phosphorescent proteins to light up the cell," she said.

"Endosymbiosis," the central painting in the SOU exhibit, is an homage to the late evolutionary scientist Lynn Margulis, whose children include Ashland writer Jennifer Margulis and science writer Dorion Sagan.

Margulis was a pioneering advocate of the idea that evolution takes place not just through competition, but through cooperation. Life has advanced from simple single-celled creatures to complex multicellular life, in part, because different single-cell creatures merged with each other and became symbiotic partners, according to Margulis' theories.

A paper Margulis wrote that espoused those ideas was rejected by 15 scientific journals before being published in 1967. Her ideas are now so mainstream they appear in biology textbooks.

When Margulis died in 2011 at age 73, newspapers around the world ran obituaries.

Dubiner said she painted "Endosymbiosis" after learning of Margulis' death.

Yellow, squiggly lines in the painting represent ancient, snake-like bacterial spirochetes that are attaching themselves to other single-celled organisms, becoming the waving tails that propel the organisms, according to Dubiner.

In a statement for the exhibit, Sagan, Margulis' son, wrote that the paintings showcase a wild variety of microscopic beings living together and creating combined new forms.

"Dubiner's whimsical paintings are at least as accurate as BBC documentaries highlighting carnivores stalking their prey," Sagan wrote.

While Dubiner's original painting "Endosymbiosis" will remain in Ashland, a six-foot-wide reproduction of the piece will travel to the University of Massachusetts Amherst for a March symposium on Margulis' life and work.

Dubiner said she wants to portray microscopic life in a style that is accessible to the general public — beyond what people see in textbook illustrations or in photos taken with the aid of microscopes.

"What you have a hard time finding is a playful, exuberant and aesthetic depiction of the hidden world of the tiny," she said.

The public is invited to a reception for the artist from 5 to 8 p.m Thursday, March 1, in the Thorndike Gallery inside the Art Building, next to the Schneider Museum of Art on the SOU campus. The Art Building and museum are uphill from the intersection of Siskiyou Boulevard and Indiana Street. (Correction: The time of the reception has been corrected in this story.)

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Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or

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