Artist/scientist Peter Krsko bends nature to his will

By Michael Muckian, Contributing writer

Ask Peter Krsko to define the art he creates and he might pull a wasp comb out of his backpack and draw attention to its hexagonal cells.

The scientist/artist then may describe how taking spherical objects, such as  inflated balloons, and pressing six of them around the surface of a seventh will create flat sides on the center balloon, forming a hexagon similar to those found in the wasp comb.

Life sometimes imitates art, but art more often imitates nature, says Krsko. Blending art and science gives people a better understanding of the world around them.

According to Krsko, “Art has the advantage of flexibility and freedom, and I think we would benefit by getting rid of the wall between science and art.”

Krsko is doing just that this spring as the UW-Madison Arts Institute interdisciplinary artist in residence. The university’s departments of biological systems engineering, art, design studies and physics are supporting Krsko’s residency.

His blend of art and science reached new depth during work at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. A dramatic example: Utilizing the capabilities of the institute’s electron microscope, he was able to employ computer mapping to create a replica of a famous Albert Einstein portrait by isolating surface areas receptive to cell growth and allowing cells to grow into the portrait.

The portrait, created from living protein molecules, is roughly 1/10th the diameter of the average human hair and visible only through the lens of the very powerful microscope, he says. The portrait is not part of Krsko’s residency at UW.

Madison’s Arts Institute was drawn to Krsko because of his experience creating collaborative and public art inspired by the biological concepts of diversity, differentiation, participation and co-ownership.

During his internship, Krsko is teaching a course called “Zoethica: Bio-inspired Art and Science,” during which students study natural materials, organisms and systems at micro-, meso- and macroscopic levels.

Each student will complete an end-of-semester art project, Krsko says, while noting that only one of the students has any artistic background.

The projects will be installed May 5 at Olbrich Botanical Gardens, along with a work by Krsko. The installation completes the cycle of combining art and nature for the students and concludes Krsko’s residency.

Using nature to teach science

Krsko recently gave a lecture to budding elementary school teachers enrolled in a program at Madison’s Edgewood College.

The scientist/artist told the teachers-in-training that complex math and physics concepts can and should be taught to elementary school students through examples gleaned from the natural world. The plasticity of children’s brains makes them better able to absorb and understand such concepts when presented in a way that makes sense to them, such as a humble wasp comb.

“Creating artwork can help answer the question of how wasps use geometry to create the perfect comb,” he says. “Complex geometry emerges from the random motion of the wasps as they work next to each other.”

Such seemingly random alignments occur all the time in nature, and it’s Krsko’s mission to uncover, explain and illustrate them through art.

Not only teachers but scientists themselves can benefit from the art/science nexus, he says.

Immersed in nature

Krsko’s approach comes from growing up in a family of woodworkers and farmers in his native Slovakia. An appreciation and respect for the natural world — coupled with time spent hiking the forests and fields — immersed the future scientist/artist in the type of environments that would give rise to his concepts.

Krsko’s environment changed significantly when he moved to the United States for school at age 18, spending most of his time in East Coast urban areas significantly different from what he experienced at home. He completed his Ph.D. in biophysics and materials science from the Stevens Institute.

Krsko did a post-doctorate fellowship at the National Institutes of Health, where the reluctance of old-fashioned “bench scientists” to share information about discoveries with the general public led to an interest in science education.

Settling in Wisconsin

The artist/scientist found his way to Wisconsin when he responded to a request for a proposal for outdoor art pieces from Fermentation Fest, a confluence of art, agriculture, food and community presented held each fall by the Wormfarm Institute in Reedsburg. It was his first exposure to the Badger State and a much-needed return to his rural roots.

Krsko made the relationship permanent when he moved from Washington, D.C., to Wonewoc, a village about 70 miles northwest of Madison with a population around 800. The new home allows him ample room to pursue his research as well as keep a small garden.

Artist/scientist Peter Krsko’s “Drop.”

“I had to have a discussion with my insurance company when I moved there,” Krsko says. “They wanted to me to take out insurance on my possessions and I said, ‘Why? I only have a bed and a desk.’”

Krsko’s Spartan ethic speaks to his commitment to research, which continues to push his use of science and art to express and explain the relationship between natural phenomenon and the social structures humans have created.

“Art is a great way to trick people into learning something they don’t believe they can learn,” Krsko says. “Creating sculpture is a good way to communicate complex scientific concepts.”

The artist/scientist need only point to his sculpture Inner Foam — which sits on the first floor of the Wisconsin Institutes of Discovery on the UW campus — and explain how it replicates the movement of bubbles, with the sculpture’s flat, hexagonal shapes linked together at various angles representing cellular structure.

Krsko is still in the early stages of his career, and says he continues to learn through execution. “You go through the two worlds of art and science, make the circle and come back and realize there is a personal spirituality that is a part of everything,” he says. “Science is totally closed off to spirituality, which is another reason art is a great vehicle to reach that level of knowledge.”


A tree grows in Birge Hall

Students trekking daily through Birge Hall, home of the botany department on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, had the rare treat this semester of watching a “tree” made of construction waste wood grow in the vestibule.

Scientist/artist Peter Krsko, the UW-Madison Arts Institute Spring 2017 interdisciplinary artist in residence, was asked to create an art installation just inside the doors of the classic academic building. As a result, a wooden structure rose 22 feet, wrapped around one of the vestibule’s towering pillars.

Krsko utilized lengths of pine lathe from construction projects that were destined for the scrap heap. He created an almost geyser-like structure that reached from floor to the ceiling.

Krsko took his inspiration from the plant life growing in Birge Hall’s massive greenhouse, he says, and in the process turned the wood into a replica of its natural state, representing a circle of materials, if not of life.

The sculpture is one more example of the scientist/artist’s commitment to using art to illustrate natural principles.

— M.M.