Creating Art, One Single Cell At A Time

Klaus Kemp, featured in the above short documentary, The Diatomist, carries on a Victorian tradition that marries art and science to beautiful effect:

Few did obsessive nature handicrafts like the Victorians, whether it was seaweed scrapbooking or shell arranging, something of the salon repression boiling over into insanely labored DIY arts. One of the fascinations was with the newly accessible microscopes, which showed previously invisible specimens such as the single cell algae diatoms, of which there are hundreds of different types in the world. With a single hair, practitioners would scoot the diatoms, encircled by iridescent glass-like silica cell walls, into kaleidoscope patterns only viewable beneath a lens. …

In the short documentary The Diatomist … [filmmaker Matthew] Killip visits Kemp at the work he’s perfected over years of research, showing some of the gorgeous miniature art, as well as expeditions to the water the diatoms call home. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s a horse trough, or a ditch, gutters, you name it, where there is water it’s worth having a look,” Kemp says in the film.

Chris Higgins spoke to Kemp about his work:

“As a youngster of 16 I had a great passion for natural history and came across a collection of sample tubes of diatoms from the Victorian era,” Klaus told “I was immediately struck by the beauty and symmetry of diatoms. The symmetry and sculpturing on an organism that one cannot see with the naked eye astonished me, and after 60 years of following this passion I can still get excited from the next sample I receive or collect.”

Klaus is inspired by the original diatomists from the Victorian era whose works are well sought-after by collectors. Names such as Johann Diedrich Möller and R. I. Firth have inspired him so much that Klaus is planning to recreate some of their original exhibition slides himself. Finding those initial tubes while working for a Manchester biological supply company was just the first step of Klaus’ adventure in microscopy. He has since collected thousands of samples from many different sites, with each location having its own specific type or structure of diatom.