The oldest known example of jewelry dates back 150,000 years; a set of pierced snail-shell beads found in a cave in Morocco. Other ancient examples from around the world include fish and animal bone amulets believed to confer good luck or supernatural powers to the wearer.
As with all art, the nature of jewelry evolves across the millennia as new materials are discovered and fashion trends – often driven by political, cultural, and spiritual influences – inspire artists and designers to explore new directions.
For one recent Scottish arts graduate, that journey of exploration – in a world where we are encouraged to consider the impact of exploiting the planet’s finite resources – has led to the creation of jewelry using bacteria found naturally on the human body.
When I arranged to meet Chloe Fitzpatrick in her hometown studio in Bo’ness on the southern shoreline of the Firth of Forth, I wasn’t sure if I should wear a hazmat suit or a mask. As it happened it was neither. The door was opened by a fresh-faced, young woman in her early twenties in casual attire with a denim apron bearing only the light markings from her latest work in progress. My query about the safety of the environment I was about to enter brought nothing more infectious than a burst of laughter. It seems it is a comment she is getting used to these days. The first thing that struck me about the studio was its curious hybrid appearance. By the window was a workbench with all the paraphernalia and associated clutter I would expect to find in the workplace of a creative jewelry artist – hot-flame torches, vice, soldering iron, pliers, magnifying glass, scraps of pewter and strangely shaped pieces of coloured resin. The other side of the room was reminiscent of a modern, science laboratory – pristine white desk, high-powered microscope, agar dishes sealed in resin containing amorphous blobs of differing colour, and a rack of shelves with liquid-filled, glass jars in which strange tendril-shaped objects were suspended. On a side wall was a bookcase housing a collection of volumes on fashion, biology, and art.
The room hosted several small plants that I would come to realize were all part of her foray into the world of what has become known as BioArt.
Fitzpatrick traces the origins of her journey into the world of BioArt to her experiences in secondary school.
“The syllabus was taught in a rigid way that inhibited imagination and free-thinking,” she explains. “I was an avid drawer ever since I first held a pencil, and I knew that the best way to express myself was through the world of art.
Although I never got the opportunity to explore it beyond the confines of structured coursework, I became fascinated with the unseen world made visible through the lenses of a microscope. That is where it all began.”
Leaving school, she was offered a place at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, Dundee. During her first year as a student, she experimented with different types of art but found her work influenced continually by science and specifically the micro-world of bacteria. In her second year she elected to study jewelry design, which she carried forward into third year where again she found her creations influenced by things she had observed through a microscope. By the time she reached her fourth and final year she knew that her new-found field of jewelry and her love of nature and the hidden world of bacteria had become inseparable. With the help and expertise of Dundee University’s School of Life Sciences, and the James Hutton Institute she began taking swabs from different parts of her body and growing colonies of the gathered bacteria on nutrient-rich plates of agar-filled Petri dishes. As the colonies of different bacteria grew, she discovered they each had their own unique, signature colour. By extracting larger samples of individual colours she was then able to encourage further controlled growth of any specific bacterium. This provided even larger colonies of bacteria that could be cut or molded into different shapes. These were then encased in UV resin, sealed into a rubber mold or embedded in glass and set into a pewter or silver frame. Other options included dissolving the bacteria with acid to create bacterial-coloured pigments that could then be used to colour glass beads, dye threads and fabrics, or stain other materials. She has used similar processes to cultivate algae from the plants in her studio, embedding the results in her creations. Arguably, these approaches are a more sustainable and environmentally friendly method of obtaining colour than some of the heavily chemical-based and potentially toxic alternatives.
Fitzpatrick is interested in Buddhism through which she senses a deep spirituality that helps her connect with the natural world – even at the most microscopic of levels.
This has led her to question why we continue to exploit the planet’s diminishing resources by adorning our bodies with potentially harmful metals and scarce, precious minerals.
Holding a Petri dish to the window, she observes the light passing through a translucent colony of yellow bacteria.
“We have the ability to adorn our bodies with the beautiful things that are found growing naturally on it. Some people may think that weird, but it requires only a mindset shift in the way we look at the world of micro-organisms to see things differently.”
Taking a book from a shelf she flicks through the pages pausing to show me examples of BioArt. I am intrigued to note mention of Sir Alexander Fleming as one of the earliest proponents of ‘germ paintings’. Credited with the discovery of penicillin, he was a lifelong member of Chelsea Arts Club where he painted amateurish watercolours. Less well-known is that he created Petri dish ‘paintings’ using coloured bacteria to delineate stick figures, soldiers, ballerinas and houses. Although the art produced is regarded as unremarkable, it represents one of the earliest examples of biologically engineered art. Fitzpatrick belongs to an expanding list of bio-artists following in Fleming’s footsteps. These are the creative individuals who blur the boundaries between art (emotive, evocative, and ‘free’) and design (subject to rules, research, and purpose).
She is quick to acknowledge that turning her early-day experiments into pieces of commercially viable jewelry has still some way to go but it is a journey that she is keen to continue. Jewelry empowers the wearer. It creates a sense of belonging and identity, invoking feelings of elevated self-esteem. These are important attributes. Fitzpatrick understands that jewelry is not just a decorative frill. Her work endeavours to tap into those feelings of identity and self-worth. What better way to display jewelry with confidence than have it created from the unseen things that are part of you – it becomes a manifest statement of who you are.
Fitzpatrick’s work gained her a BDes Jewelry and Metal Design degree and the prestigious Sir James Black Award for outstanding research and achievement in her field. She has been commissioned to produce a piece of art for the University of Dundee School of Life Sciences’ Medical Garden. This work in progress will be a dyed, bio-resin, pill-shaped sculpture representing the medically important Streptomyces bacterium – used to produce a wide range of essential antibiotics. As an avid contributor to the TikTok video-sharing platform – where she posts short clips of her work and the processes involved – she can boast over 110,000 followers and more than 86 million views. Clearly, there is significant interest in what she does. She admits, “Some people find it gross, while others are simply curious and then there are those who find it interesting and inspiring.” Through her TikTok outreach she came to the attention of the organizers of the first central Asian BioArts Exhibition in Astana, Kazakhstan where her work was displayed recently in the Kulanshi Contemporary Art Centre.
It is Fitzpatrick’s wish that the jewelry of tomorrow will not be made from gold and diamonds but from the signature bacteria that defines us. ~ Story by Tom Langlands
Photos by Chloe Fitzpatrick and Tom Langlands Photography