Media Arts

Paper Microbes

By Kasmira Mohanty, posted on Nov 9, 2023

Students decided to go in the opposite direction from the enormity of space to explore the world of microbiology. Based on this decision, I introduced them to the paper sculptures of Rogan Brown. The challenge was to find a way for each student to contribute to a collaborative art project based on Brown’s work. The solution was for each student to create an imaginary paper microbe inspired by an actual microorganism.


SchoolArts magazine, The Media Arts Issue, December 2023, High school art lesson, Layered Paper Sculptures
Left: Collaborative artwork in progress. Right: Petri Dish of Imagined Paper Microbes created by Mrs. Mohanty's Digital Arts students.
SchoolArts magazine, The Media Arts Issue, December 2023, High school art lesson, Layered Paper Sculptures
A detail of students╩╝ imaginary paper microbes.
SchoolArts magazine, The Media Arts Issue, December 2023, High school art lesson, Layered Paper Sculptures
A close-up of students╩╝ individual paper microbes.

I am a big science enthusiast—whether the subject is space exploration or making a potato clock. When the opportunity to refurbish the twelve-year-old artwork in the science hallway at my high school presented itself, I was delighted to take on the challenge.

Questions to Consider
There are several factors that must be carefully considered when creating an installation that can be enjoyed for many years. I carry a basic set of important questions in my head as a professional artist to use whenever I’m asked to create site-specific artwork. These questions also work perfectly when applied to a client-driven class project:

  • What are the client’s needs and desires?
  • Who is the audience?
  • What is my budget and my timeline?
  • How large can the installation be?
  • What materials are durable, safe, and appropriate for the installation site?
  • What type of lighting can I experiment with or need to deal with at the installation site?
  • How do I avoid cliché or obvious design solutions?
  • How do I inject my design aesthetic and personality into a project while meeting the client’s expectations?

Framework and Foundation
I chose my advanced-level digital art students to hammer out the framework for the project. I tasked them with answering the aforementioned questions using the UX Design Process: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test. I divided the class into four groups to complete a UX Design Process work packet.

Since this was their first experience designing for a client, I provided a foundation with additional information and resources. I shared ten different ideation techniques in a slideshow presentation for students to use at their discretion. The science department wanted the new work to be different from the previous artwork, which was a digitally illustrated space scene created by a former student of mine. Lastly, the artwork had to explore a scientific theme, and each student had to contribute a design feature as part of the completed work.

Inspiration from Artist Rogan Brown
Students decided to go in the opposite direction from the enormity of space to explore the world of microbiology. Based on this decision, I introduced them to the paper sculptures of artist Rogan Brown. The challenge was to find a way for each student to contribute to a collaborative art project based on Brown’s work.

Design Challenges
The solution was for each student to create an imaginary paper microbe inspired by an actual microorganism. Multiples of each student’s illustrated microbe would be assembled in varying sizes using white card stock in at least two layers, each held together with foam spacers.

To begin, students were required to choose a microbe for inspiration. Their design had to have internal cut-outs and be engineered so that a cutting machine could do the job that Brown does by hand.

This was a big challenge for my students—having to foreshadow how their microbe would be assembled based on their flat design created in Adobe Illustrator. I also asked them to consider how their microbe would interact with the other paper microbes in the final work. Needless to say, there was a lot of reworking after the initial prototypes were assembled.

Cutting and Assembling
After the design of each individual paper microbe was completed, the immense task of cutting and assembling began. Even with the aid of the cutting machine, this was a laborious and time-consuming task. The finished product took several months. I scheduled assembly days on a rotating basis for students while they worked on other projects.

Presentation
The assembled microbes were attached using permanent double-sided tape and foam spacers to a 34" (86 cm) round piece of matboard that I had professionally cut. The round matboard was the only out-of-pocket expense for the project. I estimated for 2,000 individual pieces, 630 assembled microbes, and 160 hours to construct.

It was a labor of love that lasted several months, but it was well worth it. Once installed, it quickly became the talk of the building, and word later spread throughout the district.

Hidden Surprise
For an extra bit of fun, I hid two tiny bunnies within the completed artwork to thank a senior who was not in digital art class but wanted to help with the assembly process. I chose bunnies based on the student’s nickname. As the “secret” spread, students, staff, and parents stopped by often to search for them. The completed installation will likely draw eager viewers for many years to come.

Kasmira Mohanty is a digital arts teacher at Huntington High School in Huntington, New York, and a contributing editor for SchoolArts. KasmiraMohanty@gmail.com

National Standard
Producing: Develop and refine artistic techniques and work for presentation.

Resource
Rogan Brown

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