Ela Kurowska is a Canadian scientist-turned-artist who utilizes scientific principles to create Light Forms, a photo-based art project exploring the abstract origins of life using the photoelastic effect. Read part one of her story here.
What do you see when you look at Ela Kurowska’s photos? An exploding supernova? An otherworldly animal curling around itself? A flower caught in the middle of its first bloom? Shattered glass? Water? Fire? The cosmos?
“In my mind they resemble something, but other people tell me they resemble something totally different,” Ela said. All of Light Forms’ photos are meant to explore the origins of life, and Ela feels as though she is creating life itself through her mixture of art and science.
There are many theories that attempt to explain how life began on Earth. Ela, always the biochemist, is partial to a scientific hypothesis. The theory that life was formed at the moment when various large organic molecules mixed together in primordial soup and started to organize into complex structures in response to environmental stress, such as volcanic eruptions, cosmic radiation, or powerful electric storms; defying the laws of entropy and birthing the building blocks of life. “Scientists don’t know exactly how it happened,” Ela said in the short film Ela’s Worlds, a documentary about her art and her process. “But maybe, just maybe, these large organic molecules started to organize themselves because of stress.”
Stress is the main factor in creating Light Forms. To create an image, Ela utilizes different types of organic substances. “Gels are my main stars,” she said. “I actually developed some recipes for gels that would be good for photography and I use different combinations.” After deciding on a general design (shape, color, size, etc.), Ela often starts building her worlds with liquid gels. Since these liquid gels settle into a solid state as they cool, Ela combines them with dry, solid gels, sometimes between two panes of glass, sometimes using dozens of other methods. The compositions she builds out of various gels are usually between an inch and an inch and a half tall—tiny structures that, in the final image, become huge, glowing, abstract glories.
The compositions are built with the intent to induce deformation. Deformations lead to material strain and strain leads to the elegance of the photoelastic effect. “Some places deform more, some deform less,” Ela said. “And after it all sets, I place the gel figure on a light box and I capture it using two polarizer filters. One polarizer is on my camera lens. The other one sits atop the light box, behind the gel. Then I work on the photo itself. Focusing my camera, positioning the gel object for the best impact, capturing the best light.”
Finally, with the camera connected to computer, Ela begins taking photos. “I use a focus stacking program,” she explained. “You often use this technique when you take photographs from up close and have to work with a very shallow depth of field, which means the object is sharp only within a narrow range of distance and everything else is out of focus. So I combine several images shot with different focus settings and put them together. This way, the whole three dimensional object shows up sharp in the photograph.”
In the end, the beauty of Ela’s images come from the deformations. In the image below, the burst of light shining out of the heart of a gel ball is the result of pressure exerted by the ball expanding on the surrounding material. “The trick is to place one gel inside another,” Ela said when describing her methods. The outside gel is water based, and the inside gel is a small, dry bead that has ability to swell into a large ball by absorbing water. As the outside liquid gel slowly settles into a solid form, the dry gel absorbs the surrounding water, swelling and growing larger, compressing the gel around it and producing stress. The compressed gel becomes anisotropic. On the molecular level this means that its long-chain molecules become forcefully rearranged into parallel patterns visible as a glowing light when viewed in the cross-polarized light.
There are, of course, many other ways Ela has found to produce photoelastic effects using organic gels. She’s spent six years experimenting and has encountered many striking results, and many failures. “There is a lot of unpredictability in the technique, in the light,” she explained. “Sometimes I have a composition and I turn it a different way and it doesn’t work. I turn one light box on, the other one off, I add additional light, and still, there are parts bothering me. Sometimes it gets frustrating. And sometimes no light comes out of [the composition]. I’m collaborating with nature so I have to take into account its unpredictability.” Then she said, “But it’s nice because the reward is like a gift from nature. It’s always interesting to welcome a new piece.”
The fact is, Ela never knows how an image will come out because she can only see her piece’s true beauty in the polarized light. The human eye cannot see the colors and deformations in the gel object without the help of the polarizers. So the first look is always a surprise. “It feels like the material unveils hidden beauty,” she recalled. “Sometimes it’s a breathtaking moment. It’s like all of a sudden seeing something alive emerging from the dark space.” The forms are biomorphic, and when they start to glow it is as though they have truly come alive. “This is my favorite moment,” Ela said.
And how does she know when a piece is done? When it’s ready to be photographed?
“It’s ready when I see it’s ready,” she said simply. “When it’s beautiful! And it’s not always beautiful from every angle, sometimes it’s messy. But when it pops out, that’s the moment. It’s intuition.”
Over time, as more and more Light Forms were created, Ela realized her process resembled the scientific hypothesis about the emergence of life: the large organic molecules, the stress, the organization. “The final result of nature’s work is life as we know it. The final result of my work is just the image of something that looks like life,” she said. The Light Forms art project is an experiment, showcasing how easily life can emerge; all it takes is large organic molecules, stress, “and a little bit of light, and then boom! You see the life!” Ela laughed. “But of course, it’s just an art experiment; still, I find the similarities quite amazing.”
Ela’s pieces are at the intersection of art and science. Learn more about where these two disciplines meet in Part Three: “Art Can Make Engineering Beautiful.”
All images in this article are courtesy of Ela Kurowska.