The Art of Diatoms
by Xavier Cortada
FIU School of Environment, Art and Society
I marvel at looking into a microscope.
I focus in and see time. I see the past, really far into the past. I see beautiful small aquatic plants encased in glass that lived on our planet for many millions of years. Sitting inside Dr. Evelyn Gaiser’s Algae Research lab at Florida International University in Miami, I look at a slide and see diatoms.
Diatoms transport me to a place so distant in time that it wouldn’t look like the Earth I know. They help connect me to an Earth I am trying to better understand. An Earth fluid. An Earth as process. An Earth completely interconnected. An Earth generating life forms across space and time.
In diatoms I also see moments captured in time. Scientists can determine the past salinity of water by examining the glass shells of diatoms preserved in sedimentary core samples. Each diatom species has a different salinity preference, so changes in the mixture of fresh and sea water (driven by sea level rise and water management) can be inferred from past diatom remains.
Their presence in the layered sediment connects us to the ecosystem in which they thrived while they were alive. Indeed, they are a portal to what once was so that we can better learn how to protect what now is.
A diatom glass shell is a talisman.
The tiniest of talismans– as tiny as a cell: a single-celled organism that lives in the water and harnesses the power of the sun to convert CO2 into organic substances to sustain its life and releasing oxygen in the process. Indeed, the oxygen in one of every third breath we take was returned to the atmosphere by and through diatoms!
Elegant, gem-like, the bilaterally symmetrical shapes of many diatoms move me to depict them in my art. I do so to celebrate the science that shows us their relevance in our world. These are some of the works:
Diatom Fountain (Fig. 3)
I am currently putting finishing touches on Diatom Fountain. Comprised of 1,616 handmade, hand-painted ceramic tiles, we just need to add water as soon as we get the lights and water pump installed on this sixteen-foot tall public fountain. It is my latest public work, one of several featuring diatoms.
This one is at Miami-Dade Housing Authority’s Smathers Plaza, an elderly living community in Little Havana. Here, four vertical water channels disrupt the natural flow of diatoms across the sculpture, much like dredging and canals have disrupted the flow of the River of Grass across South Florida. I like depicting diatoms in public places as a way of engaging audiences – an entry point for them to learn about how scientists use diatoms to monitor water flow and quality in the Florida Everglades and throughout Florida’s ecosystems.
Florida Coastal Everglades LTER (Fig. 4)
Using a microscope, I captured the image of a diatom from samples used by scientists working in the FIU-led Florida Coastal Everglades LTER (Long Term Ecological Research) program to study the ecology of the Everglades and sea level rise. In the digital art piece, my first work about diatoms, I had this diatom image hover over a layer of maps (that I captured using Google maps) showing the artificial canals and lakes created to develop parcels of developable land where the River of Grass once flowed.
Miami Beach City Hall (Fig. 5)
To create the Centennial art piece for the City of Miami Beach, I used a diatom as the central image for the digital work. The diatom depicted in the art piece was living on Biscayne Bay in 1915. It was creating the very air Miami Beach founders breathed 100 years ago as they brought the city to life. Its glass shell, all that remains from the diatom, is used by scientists today to see what was as they research environmental issues crucial to the city in the century to come.
Florida Turnpike (Figs. 6, 7)
I was commissioned to create permanent public art installations in three Florida Turnpike plazas, making them cultural destinations in and of themselves. Wanting to connect tourists and locals to Florida’s true beauty–nature, I portrayed Florida’s life-giving sun, its endangered animals and native wildflowers. At the Florida Turnpike Turkey Lake Plaza near Orlando, I depicted the Florida’s sun-using and water-bound diatoms that harness its power thus creating oxygen. Conceptually, I wanted to track a day in the life across the Sunshine State:
• Sunrise: Huge diatom-clad sunrays rise above the Northbound entrance (on the east side of the Turkey Lake plaza),
• High Noon: life-giving diatoms appear as circles on the ceiling at the center of the building
at high noon, and
• Sunset: the rays set above the Southbound entrance on the west.”