A Historical, Invisible Artform: Diatom Arranging

I just discovered an old artform while watching a BBC documentary (Coasts) that I had not known existed: diatom arranging. That’s right. Organizing microscopic, single-cell organisms into kaleidoscope-like patterns… by hand! Never heard of it before? Me either. Possibly because when it was popular was in the 1800’s. I love this early connection between art and science.

Work by German microscopist J.D. Möller

Work by German microscopist J.D. Möller

The above work was created by Johann Diedrich Möller (1844 – 1907). He had decided to become a professional artist but then discovered the microscope. This changed the course of his future and Möller quickly realized that he preferred working with microscopes and slides to painting. He got a job building microscopes and grinding lenses and eventually had his own business. He created many beautiful arrangements of diatoms which can be divided into three types of designs: geometric arrangements, grid arrangements (for identification), and winding strands of a variety of diatoms (often collected from the same location or showing similar types.

So where exactly does one find diatoms? They are found in practically any body of water: oceans, rivers, streams, lakes and even puddles. And what are they? They are single-celled microalgae contained within thin walls of silica (like glass). They exist in a plethora of shapes and designs and are often referred to as “jewels” because of their beauty and delicacy.

While this artform has all but been forgotten there are still a few sci-artists that continue the tradition. Klaus Kemp is a leading contemporary diatom arranger and has earned the title “The Diatomist” for his work. Click here to view an excellent video where he talks about his work and his process (I highly recommend checking it out).

Work by Klaus Kemp

Work by Klaus Kemp

If you feel like you need to learn more about this, here are a few more resources for you:


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