Microscope Yields Unique Views of Handmade Paper
Insight November 5, 1999

by Judith Smith

At first glance, the artworks look like abstract oil paintings on canvas. But they are, in reality, greatly magnified images of paper made of such materials as barrel cactus, cornhusks and silk - printed on canvas.

These images are part of "The Face of Paper," opening Nov. 4 and continuing through Dec. 17 at the Computing Commons Gallery at Arizona State University. There will be a free opening lecture at 3 p.m. Nov. 4 (Thursday) in the Computing Commons Auditorium, and the opening reception follows from 4 to 5:30 p.m. in the gallery. Approximately 21 images of papers made with daffodil, cotton, flax, and other materials, as viewed through a scanning laser confocal microscope, will be on display, including 10 or 11 large images on canvas and 10 smaller prints displayed with actual paper samples. There also will be a computer station to view additional images and animations. Some of the images are three-dimensional and appear to pop off the canvas when they are viewed with 3-D glasses.

The images are the joint work of Charles Kazilek, manager of the ASU Life Science Visualization Group and the technical director of the W. M. Keck Bioimaging Laboratory, and Gene Valentine, who teaches book history, linguistics, and composition in the English Department at ASU and is owner of Almond Tree Press and Paper Mill in Tempe.

The project that led to the Computing Commons exhibition began when Valentine started to wonder what paper made from silk looked like under a high-power microscope. "There are a lot of images made of papers made from cellulose, and we know what holds a cellulose sheet together," Valentine said. "Silk, however, is quite another material, since rather than being from a plant fiber, comes from the body of the silkworm." Valentine made some paper from 100 percent silk, and took the paper to Kazilek and asked him to look at the paper under the scanning laser confocal microscope.

"This type of microscopy is unsurpassed for producing sharp three- dimensional images and allows us to see not just surface features but often all the way through the sheet," Kazilek said. "The microscope scans successively deeper layers of a specimen and then uses a computer to assemble the various slices into a single image. This technique eliminates blurring and scatter. "The resulting compositions have proved to be not just helpful in understanding how the fibers are interlaced within a specific paper, but are also aesthetically of interest as works of art."

Valentine said the totally unexpected results from the silk paper were "phenomenal." "Even those who had seen a lot of confocal images were impressed with the silk. The intertwining of the fibers, and the various wavelengths of light emitted from the individual fibers went together to give us an exciting, aesthetic image." Many of the papers, such as that made with cornhusks, appears to be "painterly" under the confocal microscope, Kazilek said. Magnified thousands of times, the tiny fibers look like swipes from an artist's brush.

Valentine and Kazilek examined many other handmade papers under the confocal microscope, and found that they had images of aesthetic beauty as well as scientific interest, and "The Face of Paper" was born. "Science can be magical, and magic can be art," Kazilek said.

The exhibit also is of interest because it marries one of the oldest technologies - paper - with one of the newest - the confocal microscope. Valentine added, "With the scanning laser confocal microscopy, we are being given a new way to look at a material we tend to take for granted. We write on it, print on it, and paint on it, but we tend not to think of it as it really is: a more or less flat sheet of extremely small fibers, held together by atomic charges. It holds within itself a great beauty we can never see with the naked eye."

The gallery is located on the first floor of the Computing Commons Gallery on Orange Street west of McAllister Avenue. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Visitor parking is available in Structure I on Apache Boulevard. Metered parking also is available near the Bookstore on Orange Avenue.

Posted 03 Nov 99 | ASU INSIGHT 

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