Protein Structure and Folding Captured in Sculpture

What happens when an artist is formally trained in quantum mechanics? Julian Voss-Andreae.

Hb

“Heart of Steel” (Hemoglobin), by Julian Voss-Andreae (2005). Medium: Weathering steel and glass, Height 5’ (1.50 m). From left to right, the images show the sculpture right after installation, after 10 days, and after 1 month of exposure to the elements.

Julian Voss-Andreae is an artist from Germany who now lives and works in Portland, Oregon. He received an undergraduate degree in physics and graduate training in quantum mechanics. In the above sculpture, Julian featured the hemoglobin protein: the molecule that carries oxygen from your lungs and distributes it to all your tissues. When it is carrying oxygen, it reflects light in a way that makes it appear red. Julian chose to make this sculpture out of ‘weathering steel,’ an alloy that rusts differently than regular steel. The oxide layer or “rust” formed on the surface of this steel is very thin because the rust is not water soluble, preventing excessive corrosion. In a 2007 interview with the PDB, Julian described the science behind this piece:

I was interested in using a literal connection between the chemistry in the protein and the chemistry on the sculpture’s surface. … After a few rain showers the color started to change and within half a year it was dark red. What had completely changed the look of the sculpture is of course the same chemical reaction that occurs when we breathe: Iron binds to oxygen.

Julian’s skills have been enlisted for installations at several scientific institutions. The hanging pieces below represent an effort by DePauw University art and science students under Julian’s mentorship to capture a protein folding event in sculpture. Protein folding is the process by which a newly synthesized protein molecule moves around to find its native, functional conformation.

“Villin Headpiece Folding” by Julian Voss-Andreae (2011) consists of four sculptures created with faculty and students of DePauw University for the science building. The sculptures are based on frames of a protein folding simulation by Klaus Schulten’s research group. Medium: Steel, aircraft cable, paint.

“Villin Headpiece Folding” by Julian Voss-Andreae (2011) consists of four sculptures created with faculty and students of DePauw University for the science building. The sculptures are based on frames of a protein folding simulation by Klaus Schulten’s research group. Medium: Steel, aircraft cable, paint.

The artist also created a sculpture of a protein structural motif called the alpha helix that was installed at the boyhood home of Linus Pauling (now the Linus Pauling Center for Science, Peace, and Health) in Portland, Oregon. Linus Pauling discovered the alpha helix.

"Alpha Helix for Linus Pauling" (2004), by Julian Voss-Andreae. Medium: Powder-coated steel, 10’ x 4’ x 4’ (3.00 x 1.20 x 1.20 m) Location: Linus Pauling Center for Science, Peace, and Health, Portland, OR.

“Alpha Helix for Linus Pauling” (2004), by Julian Voss-Andreae.
Medium: Powder-coated steel, 10’ x 4’ x 4’ (3.00 x 1.20 x 1.20 m)
Location: Linus Pauling Center for Science, Peace, and Health, Portland, OR.

In the MIT Press’s 2013 issue of Leonardo: Journal of the International Society for the Arts, Sciences, and Technology appears an article entitled Unraveling Life’s Building Blocks: Sculpture Inspired by Proteins. Therein, Julian pulls back the curtain to explain the profound philosophical meanings behind some of his most famous works. Often we, the art appreciators, are left to our own interpretations of artists’ work, so I find this to be a real treat. Especially since every tiny little thing about Julian’s pieces is drenched with intentional significance.

One of my favorites is a sculpture commissioned by The Scripps Research Institute:

"Angel of the West" (2008) by Julian Voss-Andreae. Stainless steel, 12' x 12' x 4' (3.70 x 3.70 x 1.20 m). Location: The Scripps Research Institute (Jupiter, FL)

“Angel of the West” (2008) by Julian Voss-Andreae.
Stainless steel, 12′ x 12′ x 4′ (3.70 x 3.70 x 1.20 m). Location: The Scripps Research Institute (Jupiter, FL)

Julian’s description:

“Angel of the West” is inspired by the structure of the human immune system’s key molecule, the antibody. Like tiny guardian angels, legions of antibodies constantly protect us from illness and disease. The sculpture plays on the striking similarity of both proportion and function of the antibody molecule to the human body. A stylized representation of the antibody molecule is surrounded by a ring evocative of Leonardo’s Renaissance icon “Vitruvian Man” (1490). Commissioned as the signature piece for the new Florida campus of the prestigious Scripps Institute, the sculpture symbolizes the application of Western science to the art of healing.

Padlan's Antibody superimposed on Vitruvian Man, 2005. Image credit: Julian Voss-Andreae.

Padlan’s Antibody superimposed on Vitruvian Man, 2005. Image credit: Julian Voss-Andreae.

Obviously, Julian has a real gift not only for art, but also for communicating science in an accessible way. However, in the aforementioned interview with the PDB, he shared a sad truth:

I used to display my work with labels talking a little bit about the science behind it. But I changed that because often the exact opposite happened, especially in the art world: As soon as you mention “science” people tend to shut off. They often feel uneasy with science and fail to recognize that it is a huge (and hugely important) part of human culture. And therefore, they rob themselves of the opportunity to see a whole world of beauty, the beauty revealed to us through scientific experiments.

In addition to his many protein sculptures, Julian has also done an expansive series of more quantum-mechanics-oriented works, including a sculpture of a buckyball and another based on a scanning tunneling microscope image of a circle of iron atoms; these and more are featured in a 2011 Leonardo article contributed by the artist. I love this quote:

I believe that art in general, especially once we dispense with the requirement that it visually represent reality accurately, is uniquely capable of instilling an intuition for the deeper aspects of reality that are hidden to the naked eye. The ability of art to transcend the confines of logic and literal representation, and to offer glimpses of something beyond, can help us open up to a deeper understanding of the world. This way, art can help wean us from the powerful grip that the worldview of classical physics has had on our every perception of reality over the past centuries.

I look forward to seeing many more works from Julian in the future, and hope that his art and other scientists’ artistic endeavors will help to spread a greater appreciation of the remarkable beauty and privilege of understanding life and this amazing world we live in.

Thanks to the artist, Julian Voss-Andreae, for his permission to share photos of his work. Thanks to the Linus Pauling Institute’s administrative officer Stephen Lawson for telling me about the artist. If you have a favorite scientific artist that you would like to see featured in a future post on The Teleporting Moth, share in the comments!

2 comments on “Protein Structure and Folding Captured in Sculpture”

  1. Jose Rodriguez Molina Reply

    Nice. Love the presence of science in those sculptures and specially protein structures! I find them so interesting! and to think that these “structures” are but empty space, since most of it is just the electron cloud; incredible!

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