Microbes as Muse: UM Graduate Merges Science With Art

Emily Mulvaney, a graduate of the University of Montana’s Master of Fine Arts program, draws inspiration for her abstract sculptures from the biological ecosystems she eyes under the microscope. (UM Photo by Tommy Martino)

By Abigail Lauten-Scrivner, UM News Service

MISSOULA – Emily Mulvaney spent about a third of her time as a University of Montana student in the microbiology lab – a schedule typical of a science scholar, but less so for a studio arts graduate student.

For Mulvaney, the biological ecosystems she eyes under the microscope are muses for her larger-than-life sculptures depicting abstract scientific representations of the bacteria found within human bodies.

“The sculptures end up being odes to the bacteria that I share my body with,” Mulvaney, who will graduate with a Master of Fine Arts degree from UM on May 11, said.

Mulvaney sees science and art as interwoven, drawing parallels between each: Both are deeply curious and creative. She continually found herself torn between each field, initially studying nursing at North Dakota State University but later switching to fine arts. At UM she found a way to integrate both into an artistic practice that uses science as a cornerstone. 

“My whole life was kind of severed between art and science,” Mulvaney said. “I merged these two things that always lived in their own space in my life. I’ve never felt more connected to my practice.”

Her intersection of interests led her to UM due to its status as a research-focused R1 university, where she could gain an exceptional arts education under the mentorship of sculpture and ceramics Professor Trey Hill, as well as hands-on experience in a lab.

For the latter, she cold-emailed Mike Minnick, a UM professor of cellular, molecular and microbial biology, and asked to meet. In his 33 years at UM studying and teaching microbial pathogenesis, Minnick had never received such an inquiry from an artist before.  

 “The science world at UM and the art world, they’re both pretty prominent and yet they don’t interdigitate,” Minnick said. “Emily, just out of the blue, emailed me.”

Minnick, who will retire from the University next fall, was intrigued by the opportunity to do something new at the close of his UM career. When he met Mulvaney in his lab to learn more about her vision, Minnick saw her light up with excitement while examining a swab of her mouth under the microscope.

“I thought, ‘Wow, I wish all grad students were this eager,’” Minnick said. “The next thing I knew, she had these sculptural interpretations of the things she saw in the microscope. Things I never would have imagined she saw.”

Mulvaney kept returning to the lab to refine her scientific and artistic processes. She harvested more bacteria samples from her gum line, digestive system, skin and other parts of her body, then grew the specimens and identified the colonies under Minnick’s guidance. 

Despite being new to microbial techniques, Mulvaney had a knack for it, Minnick said.

“Emily had very good hands, and it makes sense because she’s a sculptor,” he said. “She could have been a scientist, had she chosen that route.”

While Mulvaney honed her skills with the microscope, Minnick found he too was learning from working with her, looking at procedures and practices he’d done for decades in novel ways and with new curiosities. 

“It pushed me to get out of this box, if you will. She was pushing me, and I was pushing her. It was a good synergy,” Minnick said. “I think more scientists and artists should get together and do this sort of thing, because it’s really a different perspective.”

The close working relationship led Mulvaney to ask Minnick to serve on her MFA thesis committee – a first for the longtime microbiology professor.

“One time Mike said working with me was like being in the Twilight Zone,” Mulvaney said with a laugh.

They ended up with hundreds of specimens. Mulvaney chose seven as inspiration in the studio, transmuting the invisible microbial ecosystems into vivid, human-sized works of art. 

Other than welding a strong structural base, Mulvaney’s technique differed for each sculpture, including the use of wax, paper, plastic and fabric materials. 

Mulvaney felt vulnerable exhibiting the work she spent three years creating at her gallery thesis show, but was excited to see engagement and inquisitiveness from viewers – many of whom asked interesting questions and displayed strong responses. 

“A lot of my work is really visceral. Talking about bacteria, there’s already this disgust element or discomfort that happens,” she said. “I saw a lot of people really investigating the work and making kind of gross faces.”

But repulsed groans and shocked faces aren’t at all insulting to Mulvaney. 

“I love that. It means I’m getting a reaction from something I made, and that’s really exciting,” she said. 

Her sculpture of E. coli, which resembled hoisted up intestines leaking onto the ground, and a piece of actively growing bacteria elicited the strongest reactions. And while those reactions often erred on the grotesque, they also sparked curiosity and captivation.

“And that’s all you can really ask as an artist,” she said. 

Beyond the initial surprise and shock, Mulvaney hopes viewers of her work come to think of their bodies differently, gaining new perspectives of themselves as a biological ecosystem.

Minnick appreciated how scientific Mulvaney’s renderings were, having been sculpted from close observation. 

“It’s like a little anatomy, a little horror at the same time,” he said. “It was the most unique perspective on lab work that I’ve ever seen. I really enjoyed walking around.”

After she graduates this week, Mulvaney will complete UM’s Museum Studies certificate to add more options to her professional portfolio. Mulvaney said she loves her job as a curatorial assistant at the Montana Museum of Art and Culture, helping design and put up installations. Working in a museum or art gallery would provide her a stable job she loves while creating her own work, she said.

She also looks forward to progressing her work to the next level as an Open AIR artist in residence this fall at UM’s Flathead Lake Biological Station.

Mulvaney will live and work with scientists at the bio station, and she hopes to be as involved with the research as possible. She tentatively plans to expand her work out from the biological ecosystems living on the human body to the microorganisms found in water or other environments.

The unique opportunity will be rejuvenating and allow her to make new connections in the greater arts community outside of Missoula, Mulvaney said.  

Minnick hopes Mulvaney will continue to straddle science and art, provoking curiosity for both through her work. 

“She shows you can be a renaissance man or woman and try something new,” Minnick said. “It does take courage to do that, and it’s inspiring to others.”


Contact: Dave Kuntz, UM director of strategic communications, 406-243-5659, dave.kuntz@umontana.edu.