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The Nature of Art

Bioinspired artist Peter Krsko
Peter Krsko stands amidst Renewal (with collaborating artist Katie Schofield’s Turkey Tails), one in a series of bio-inspired art installations on view at Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison. Photo by TJ Lambert/Stages Photography.
Peter Krsko stands amidst Renewal (with collaborating artist Katie Schofield’s Turkey Tails), one in a series of bio-inspired art installations on view at Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison. Photo by TJ Lambert/Stages Photography.

Around the turn on a cobbled path that runs through Madison’s Olbrich Botanical Gardens, Peter Krsko perches on top of a ladder next to a tree, holding a handful of what look like unnumbered yardsticks. As visitors pass by, they pause and watch him add a few of the slender pine lath pieces to one of three vertical frames that extend from the ground to the thick branches overhead.

Breaking his focus briefly, he makes an odd declaration for someone who’s been wielding a nail gun all morning: “It’s like meditation,” he says, laughing a bit, as he fires another stripe of tiny nails into the soft wood.

While Krsko works, he chats with an elderly couple and then a younger woman and her two-year-old daughter, discussing what the structures might represent and how he builds them. Everyone mentions how the structures, narrow at the base and expanding as they reach toward the sky, resemble trees.

“It symbolizes the explosion of growth in nature,” Krsko says nonchalantly and adds that the name of the piece is Renewal. Inspired by long walks in the woods, Renewal comes from his desire to create a piece in which “the lumber and lath are returned back to their original, organic form.”

The art that Krsko makes, like his Renewal piece at Olbrich Gardens, is heavily influenced by nature and science. He calls this type of work bioinspired art. Though he doesn’t have a hard-and-fast definition for it, Krsko explains his process as “taking the time and observing nature—so, really learning from nature—then taking that as inspiration and using it to create art.”

While many artists are willing to share their inspiration and process, very few are willing to openly discuss what their pieces are meant to symbolize or represent. But Krsko has learned to be upfront about his work, mostly because his process is equal parts creative, iterative, and instructive.

According to Krsko, bio-inspired art “is not just about painting a picture of a flower or creating a replica or a sculpture of a flower.” Rather, he notes, it is a process that entails “exploring the material properties of nature, the cycles and dynamics of nature, and how whole biological systems are structured—and putting that into works of art.”

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Originally from the central European country of Slovakia, Krsko moved to the United States in 1989, at age eighteen, to attend the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey. It’s there that his passion for science and love of art began to converge.

During his sophomore year, Krsko was invited to work in a lab where researchers studied biomedical polymers. He was immediately drawn to the lab’s scanning electron microscope. “I went into such detail in studying the instrument that I was able to not only look at things with it but [I was] also actually making stuff with it,” he recalls. “I used the electron-beam as a pencil or pen and was able to modify the polymers that were inside the lab samples and create structures.” Using his newfound favorite tool and some computer mapping technology, Krsko created a microscopic replica of an Albert Einstein portrait—1/10th the diameter of a human hair—by isolating surface areas where cells could grow to form the image of the famous scientist.

It was also during his undergrad days that Krsko found himself “surrounded by a lot of artists,” he says. “We started doing these get-togethers and shows in galleries and community art projects.” Krsko earned his undergraduate degree and decided to stay on at the Stevens Institute for graduate school, eventually earning an interdisciplinary PhD in biophysics and material sciences.

From there, a post-doctoral stint at the National Institutes of Health sparked an interest in science education in the young artist. However, instead of pursuing a tenure-track position, Krsko threw himself into art. In early 2009, Krsko opened an independent art studio in Washington DC where “focused on working on different art projects to teach science and expose young students to scientific disciplines.”

Today, Krsko’s résumé reads largely as a list of commissioned murals, workshops, community art projects, and gallery exhibits, as well as a few peer-reviewed publications from science journals like Langmuir and Materials Today tossed in for good measure.

His bio-inspired Stabilimentia (2016–2017), a series he’s done twice in Wisconsin, uses translucent green plastic wrap strands stretched between trees to mimic spider webs. A mural in Washington DC more than three stories high called Zebras (2013) features a throng of equids in vivid, near-symmetrical stripes that make them almost indistinguishable from one another. A smaller piece in Maryland named Warmth (2015) is a deceptively simple-looking bench made from a recovered black oak tree stump and welded steel shafts.

Krsko’s ability to fuse elements of nature and science into art has earned him plenty of commissioned work across the country. This unique ability has also led to an artist residency at the University of Wisconsin–Madison Arts Institute, an independent division within the university that draws from faculty and staff in a wide range of departments and arts-related fields to create and generate conditions for bold thinking and creative problem solving.

Created almost twenty years ago, the residency at the Arts Institute aims to “foster collaborative research, education, and outreach by creating new interdisciplinary areas of knowledge that cross boundaries,” says Kate Hewson, an assistant director at the Institute. Hewson says that Krsko was a perfect fit for the semester-long residency, noting his “unique combination of arts practice, science research, and education focus.”

For the spring 2017 residency, titled Zoethica: Bioinspired Art and Science, Krsko led a class of mainly science- and engineering-track undergraduates through discussions and readings on ethical problems facing scientists today and assisted them in creating bio-influenced art pieces. “The goal was to observe nature using scientific methods and get inspired to create art,” he says.

The title Zoethica, which is a portmanteau of zoe (the Greek word for “life”) and the word ethics, set the stage for a series of complex discussions in which the students weren’t the only ones learning in class. “We talked a lot about policy issues,” says Krsko, “and one word that I learned from the students was greenwashing, [where a company] uses the whole theme of green products only as a marketing image to sell new products and distracts from the main issue of pollution.”

Sometimes, discussions strayed into what-ifs and even science fiction. “[We discussed that] perhaps we’ll someday create a new kind of nature that’s based on or inspired by real nature but it’s completely separated from the real nature. Is that dangerous? Is it okay to do?” Krsko recalls. “In many discussions, I was just listening.”

For the second part of the class, the students and Krsko created almost two-dozen large-scale, science-centric art pieces for the exhibit at Olbrich Gardens. This was not an easy task for students with little art experience. Still, the students created projects that touched on a variety of topics and a wide range of media: a huge replica of a conch shell made from wood, a map made from broken glass depicting the violence of habitat fragmentation, a time-lapse video of a project that used soil-dwelling slime mold to illustrate how infectious diseases spread across the world.

Krsko’s students then created project-based lesson plans (downloadable at zoethica.com) for use by either elementary or middle school teachers interested in having their own students explore and discuss the intersection of science, art, and nature.

Sundaram Gunasekaran, a professor of food engineering in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering and lead sponsor for the Arts Institute artist residency, says Krsko was a very welcome addition to the campus because “his ability to communicate and convey scientific ideas through his art is very inspiring and thought-provoking for students.” Hopefully, adds Gunasekaran, Zoethica “will help them engage in other things and see things in a new perspective.”

Indeed, Krsko also has hopes that his students, the next generation of scientists, can draw on their experience to better explain their work to non-scientists. “I think they are looking at and seeing how to explain their scientific research in engaging ways,” he says. “And now, perhaps they can maybe use art to do that and open conversations with people who would otherwise not think they have something in common.”

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Zoethica is what brings Krsko and his art to Olbrich Gardens on Madison’s east side, near the shores of Lake Monona. In addition to featuring a few of Krsko’s installation pieces, Olbrich is showcasing Zoethica student artwork as well as the bio-inspired art of guest artists Katie Schofield and Dan Steinhilber throughout the sprawling sixteen-acre grounds during  Summer 2017.

“I wanted a space that is relevant to the theme of the course [and] I feel more comfortable showing my work in public spaces,” explains Krsko, adding “Olbrich is a great venue.”

Among the dozens of projects and pieces he’s completed in the last handful of years, the one that brought him to Wisconsin was Tree from Within, created for the 2015 Fermentation Festival in Reedsburg. The piece invited observers to step inside a carved-out space within a dense pile of branches to explore a tree from a truly unusual point of view.

In 2016, Krsko returned to Fermentation Fest with a mix of artistic furniture and sculptures for an installation he called Fermee Lab. This was the same year that Krsko made Wisconsin his home, settling into the rural Village of Wonewoc in Juneau County. “I just fell in love with all the people here and the landscape … and the food,” he says with a smile.

Krsko says his main goal with both Zoethica and his artwork in general is to spark curiosity. He notes that if people  “develop a strong appreciation of nature [and] look around and question everything—spend some time with every little flower, with every stone on the ground, … [we learn] not to separate ourselves as humans from nature or to be above it.” Only then, he says, will we “appreciate nature and realize we are a really a small part [of it]—and that we don’t know enough about it.”

When asked what drives him, Krsko says he has a deep desire “to educate and to build strong and healthy communities … through community art, interactive art, art that’s strongly inspired by different elements in nature.”

Drawing on his own family roots—two grandfathers were woodworkers—Krsko has turned his creative attention to wood, specifically the narrow pine lath. “It’s energy, it’s power, and it’s renewable,” he says of working with wood. “And with these pieces, it’s all improvised— there are no drawings, no sketches, no blueprints, no levels, no measuring tapes.”

In addition to the Renewal installation at Olbrich Gardens, he’s created a number of lath-based installations around the country, including a large piece in the lobby of the UW–Madison’s Birge Hall and one at the Wormfarm Institute’s Woolen Mill Gallery in Reedsburg.

Whether it’s with his own work, through the UW–Madison class and residency, or on another future adventure, Krsko hopes to keep “exploring the possibility that there is no boundary between science and art.”

Over the summer, Krsko is spending time on projects around Wisconsin and then heading down to do a piece at the Lollapalooza music festival in Chicago before making his way to Austin, Texas. In between these projects, Krsko is dropping in on his old hometown of Washington DC to work on a community-based history project: a replica of the 19th century home of Reverend Richard A. Hall, one of the first black-owned properties in the city, built just years after the end of the Civil War.

Krsko has a lot on his plate. So when he’s home in Wonewoc, he simply cherishes the outdoors. Often he can be found around a fire pit or trying to tame overgrown berry bushes or doing nothing at all other than just being in nature. “Sometimes, I just sit in my backyard and watch the grass grow,” he says. “There is just so much to enjoy when we take the time to see it.”

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Contributors

Steven Potter is a reporter who began his career in Milwaukee but now lives in his hometown of Madison. Potter’s work has appeared in Isthmus, Milwaukee Magazine, and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He’s currently a journalism graduate student at UW–Madison with a focus on multimedia reporting and data visualization.

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