Shell Meets Bone

Artist Residency 2017

In 2016/17 I was Artist in Residence at the University of Glasgow’s School of Geographical and Earth Sciences, funded by The Leverhulme Trust

I worked with biominerals specialist Professor Maggie Cusack, on an in-depth study of the nano-architecture of nacre (mother of pearl). 

Professor Cusack’s ongoing research into biominerals and my own research for printmaking and drawing projects are concerned with the underlying patterns and structures of life, and how they fit together. 

We worked on Professor Cusack’s research project: ‘Stem cell metabolomics for bone therapies and tissue engineering’, collaborating to investigate several aspects of our research interests which overlap. 

Anthropologists exploring the lost civilisation of the Mayans discovered human skulls that had an almost full set of false teeth.  Closer inspection showed that they were pieces of nacre (mother of pearl) fashioned into individual teeth that had been inserted into the jaw bone. Further analysis revealed that the jaw bone had accepted the shell implants and the bone had integrated with the shell. The shell was osteo-inductive - actively encouraging bone formation without rejecting the implant.

It’s intriguing that an invertebrate system (mollusc shell) enables bone formation in a vertebrate (human). Where does the connection lie? Unraveling this mystery is an important aspect of Professor Cusack’s project. 

We began by looking at the topography of nacre - exploring its nanostructure with a scanning electron microscope (SEM). We explored these patterns and looked at computer models of nano-pits - another aspect of the research which involves an on going investigation into the relationships between chaos and order within grid patterns. 

The balance between chaos and order in the rule-based patterns within my own artwork has always fascinated me, as best described by EH Gombrich in The Sense of Order:

 ‘However we analyse the difference between the regular and the irregular, we must ultimately be able to account for the most basic fact of aesthetic experience, the fact that delight lies somewhere between boredom and confusion. If monotony makes it difficult to attend, a surfeit of novelty will overload the system and cause us to give up’

Professor Cusack and I took this concept of chaos and order within aesthetic/topographical and biochemical patterning as a starting point and the project developed for there.

Pinctada Maxima; the species of oyster shell upon which we based our research. 

Pinctada Maxima; the species of oyster shell upon which we based our research. 

A composite Scanning Electron Microscope image, showing the growing terraces of the inner shell. 

A composite Scanning Electron Microscope image, showing the growing terraces of the inner shell. 

John Gilleece in the polishing lab, Prof Maggie Cusack preparing for the SEM, oyster shell pieces set onto SEM stubs, the vacuum chamber of the SEM with stub mounted inside. 

John Gilleece in the polishing lab, Prof Maggie Cusack preparing for the SEM, oyster shell pieces set onto SEM stubs, the vacuum chamber of the SEM with stub mounted inside. 

One of five digital prints of sketchbook pages in the exhibition Shell Meets Bone, Hunterian Museum, Glasgow 13th April - 13th August 2017

One of five digital prints of sketchbook pages in the exhibition Shell Meets Bone, Hunterian Museum, Glasgow 13th April - 13th August 2017

Sketchbook; imagining the architecture of the shell

Sketchbook; imagining the architecture of the shell

Sketchbook; imagining the growing patterns of platelets.

Sketchbook; imagining the growing patterns of platelets.

Shell Architecture, multi plate etching.

Shell Architecture, multi plate etching.

Shell Architecture i (detail)

Shell Architecture i (detail)

Sketchbook; building layered patterns.

Sketchbook; building layered patterns.

Sketchbook; playing with structures.

Sketchbook; playing with structures.

Terraces Nacre i, Screenprint 

Terraces Nacre i, Screenprint 

Detail of Terraced Nacre i; inspired by conversations with Prof Cusack about the structural layering of nacre platelets.

Detail of Terraced Nacre i; inspired by conversations with Prof Cusack about the structural layering of nacre platelets.

Inside Nacre; pen and ink drawing.

Inside Nacre; pen and ink drawing.

Prof Nikolaj Gadegaard, Professor of Biomedical Engineering showed me round the University’s incredible bio-engineering facility. Everything is bathed in yellow light. Many procedures share terminology with the printmaking workshop - lithography, etching, photo-sensitive emulsions, digital printing. 

Prof Nikolaj Gadegaard, Professor of Biomedical Engineering showed me round the University’s incredible bio-engineering facility. Everything is bathed in yellow light. Many procedures share terminology with the printmaking workshop - lithography, etching, photo-sensitive emulsions, digital printing. 

Looking at the movement of cells

Looking at the movement of cells

A series of drawing experiments - how hand drawn grids compare with computer algorithm-generated ones. Comparing controlled disorder within nature and precision engineering.

A series of drawing experiments - how hand drawn grids compare with computer algorithm-generated ones. Comparing controlled disorder within nature and precision engineering.

Exploring hand drawn moiré pattern effects.

Exploring hand drawn moiré pattern effects.

Devising analogue hand drawn versions of randomising algorithms.

Devising analogue hand drawn versions of randomising algorithms.

Learning about stem cell differentiation and bone cell structure at the Centre of Cell Engineering, University of Glasgow.

Learning about stem cell differentiation and bone cell structure at the Centre of Cell Engineering, University of Glasgow.

Drawing patterns of disintegration seen through the SEM.

Drawing patterns of disintegration seen through the SEM.

Photographic series. Clockwise from top left: Professor of Cell Engineering, Professor of Biominerals, Research Associate (Molecular Cell and Systems Biology), Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Artist in Residence, Curator of Zoology.  During different conversations, each of the specialists I worked with described the movement of cells using their hands. These portraits were taken on an SEM  image of nacre. Signals, communication, differentiation and interaction became recurring themes during this residency. 

Photographic series. Clockwise from top left: Professor of Cell Engineering, Professor of Biominerals, Research Associate (Molecular Cell and Systems Biology), Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Artist in Residence, Curator of Zoology. 

During different conversations, each of the specialists I worked with described the movement of cells using their hands. These portraits were taken on an SEM  image of nacre. Signals, communication, differentiation and interaction became recurring themes during this residency. 

Shell Meets Bone exhibition, The Hunterian Museum

Shell Meets Bone exhibition, The Hunterian Museum