The image — a blue backdrop with swirls of yellow, clusters of red dots and a certain discernible texture — could easily be attributed as a post-Impressionist oil painting. Its title is “Van Gogh’s Skin,” alluding to the close resemblance in colors and pattern with the Dutch master’s famous “Starry Night.” However, the nuanced hues and seemingly intricate design belie the picture’s true nature — that wavy red band at the top is actually the skin surface of a mouse, and those red dots are stained tumor cells.

The image is a sample of basal-cell carcinoma, the most common type of skin cancer found in humans and a valuable affliction to study through the use of animal research at the University’s Center for Organogenesis.

And “Van Gogh’s Skin” is an example of bioartography, which presents one of the few opportunities for typically unrelated fields — in this case biology, photography, and art — to be amalgamated. Such a coalition opens up the chance to tap into a vast endless subject matter: nature.

None should know this better than Brad Smith, the associate dean for creative work at the School of Art & Design, and a professor who previously directed a program in biomedical illustration.

“What nature presents to us, and what we discover and find and unearth in nature, is very visually rich, and opens up many intriguing questions just by looking at it and seeing it,” Smith said.

The idea of bioartography was conceived six years ago as an answer to a completely different problem: restrictions on travel money for student training grants. Strapped for extra funding, Deborah Gumucio, a professor in the Medical School’s department of cell and developmental biology, and her colleagues realized that the answer was all around them.

“We thought, well, what’ve we got that we can raise money with?” Gumucio said. “And we realized that our images were really gorgeous and that a lot of them were artistic and had a lot of artistic appeal.”

The work also represents a different side of the art umbrella. Unlike pastorals or scenic views, the pieces are a direct result of natural elements, rather than a simple inspiration from the subject.

“Art can sometimes be inorganic, but the art of a butterfly, or the art of a flower, or a person — any of that visual art is organic,” Gumucio said. “And this is just going deeper with it — this is just beginning to look at the structure not only of a tissue, but going deeper to look at the structure of the cells.”

The images are a by-product of research in organogenesis, but still have value after their scientific purpose has been fulfilled. However, the photos are never done solely for the sake of art.

Nicole Evans, a graduate student in the Medical School’s cell and developmental biology department and a two-time recipient of the travel grant, gave insight into the process of bioartography.

“We never stain something with seven colors to take a bioartography picture,” she said. “We’re taking pictures for our research to better understand organogenesis and development in general, and we happen to come across something cool. It’s never forced.”

The actual method of preparing the tissues for photography varies depending on whether the specimen is animal (which is transparent and needs to be dyed) or plant (which has its own natural pigment). For the cells that need to be stained, a liquid is added that contains either chemical agents or antibodies. These agents or antibodies bind to the cells, infusing them with color.

“Our favorite colors in this context are blue, red and green,” Gumucio said, describing the analysis for research purposes. “The microscopes are able to shine just the right wavelength of light to fluoresce the dyes.”

Once a photo is taken, it may go through a range of manipulation effects, including color inversion or addition. The “Van Gogh’s Skin” piece is a prime example: the yellow streaks that create the effect of a nighttime sky were added to the image of basal-cell carcinoma after the picture was taken. Such alterations are completely aesthetic, and act only to enhance the natural beauty that is already present.

Once the photos have been submitted and selected as candidates for being exhibited, they are compiled into a book and sent to various art authorities for further consultation and selection. Smith has been a yearly fixture in the process.

“If it captures my imagination, then I give it a higher ranking,” Smith said. “And what focuses my imagination, for me, is that it’s got to have something very visually interesting. There’s something about composition, pattern, color, texture — the form itself.”

Once the year’s collection has been selected, the images are put online, where they can be bought as prints. However, the most important medium for the artwork is the Ann Arbor Art Fairs, where the bioartography booth is staffed with faculty and medical students who work with the images regularly.

“To the public … it makes them feel like they have a connection to the science that might be something they don’t necessarily understand,” Evans said of working at the booth. “It gives them a connection to what we do here.”

And though the University of Michigan is the only university to have a specific bioartography program, the practice of microscopic photo art is receiving worldwide attention. Nikon holds an annual “Small World” contest, in which organisms, minerals and other materials are blown up and entered into a competition — in the 2011 contest, the top prize was for the expanded image of an insect larva’s head. Popular Science magazine has also been known to frequently publish microscopic images.

These venues, along with the University’s bioartography program, reveal the art within an arm’s length — all one has to do is look a little bit closer.

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