Welcome to Protein Portraits at Oregon State University

Hello and welcome to Protein Portraits, the Oregon State University Honors College course that adds paint brushes and computer art to the appreciation of protein molecules and their assemblies.  We build protein molecules as we imagine them, depicting them as reflections of not only experimental science but of our living experience in the world.  This year we will take up the challenge of making art inspired by viruses.  What could be more timely?  Art has always been inspired by both the joy and the turmoil in the world.  Just ask Goya about that.

The grape harvest. Francisco Goya 1786

The grape harvest. Francisco Goya 1786

St. Peter --  Francisco Goya 1823

The Repentant Saint Peter. Francisco Goya 1823

The guiding question in our ten weeks together will be, “What is a virus?

Is this a valid question?  How might we answer it?

Relying as we do on our senses, we may try to turn the question into something along the lines of “What does a virus look like?” or “What does a virus feel like to the touch?”  After all, our first answer to the question, “What is a tree?” would be to give our visual description of the trunk, limbs and leaves, or perhaps we might answer with our feeling and impression of the shade cast by a tree on a sunny day.

But how can we use our senses to answer “What is a virus?” when an individual particle is too small to be seen by the naked eye, and the protein molecules of the capsid are tinier yet?  Sure, scientists commonly sketch pictures of viruses, but aren’t the rules that are typically used to depict molecular scale objects nothing more than arbitrary choices, such as the convention that carbon atoms are painted black, oxygen atoms red, and so on?  How would you pick the “color” of virus that is physically too small to have any color?

If we turn the question into a bulkier “What does a big collection of viruses look like?”, then we may as well be asking, “What does a virus factory look like,” since the way to make a big collection of viruses is to have one of them infect a living cell and subvert its mechanisms toward rampant viral manufacture.  Is the art of a virus, therefore, the art of the infection?  Or for that matter, the art of the inoculation against the infection?  Gilbray showed us so in 1802 in his famous cartoon of early methods of vaccination.

The cow pock. James Gilbray 1802

There are many reasons for wanting to artistically depict a virus. Art meets science each time we are curious about the latest virus arriving on the world stage. We clearly need to know whether this year’s coronavirus “looks” like the SARS virus from the 2003 epidemic.  We need to know whether the proteins projecting from the surface of a virus are positioned in such away that they might serve as triggers for the body to fight off the infection because antibody molecules raised in the blood might bind to those surface proteins and interfere with the life cycle of the virus.  How can artistry and illustration best depict the details of those surface features to give a comprehensive “scientific view” of the invisible?  A similar need comes in needing to know the internal layout of a virus.  How is the lengthy RNA of the coronavirus so tightly packaged within a small diameter capsid?

Covid-19 virus. Watercolor. David Goodsell in the Sunday Washington Post (March 22), with commentary by Philip Kennicott

Could the devil, and a cure for the devil, be found in such intimate details. What does it take to kill a virus? Soap?  Sunlight? Soap and water and sunlight?

The artist Angel Gilmour says, “The sciences and the arts are asking the same questions: who, and what, are we?”  Gilmour wants “to make the viewer aware of the hidden imagery and architecture that exists all around them.” Can art help to unleash an awareness of the hidden details of the situation we are in, inspiring new ideas?

Boolean Logic.a contemporary painting by Angela Gilmour.

We know from the recent history of molecular biology that oftentimes, new discoveries about proteins are inspired by knowledge of the 3D structure of the protein.  Lots of effort therefore goes into gaining 3D knowledge.  But the knowledge is inherently limited in the same way that a series of snapshots is less informative than a whole film, and a film, marvelous as it may be to watch, is only an edited compilation of many recording sessions.  At a certain point we have to admit that despite our possession of the 3D structure of a molecule, we have very large gaps in knowledge.  We doodle on paper or in our minds to organize our question marks and sketch out hypothetical pictures of reality that hopefully guide us toward fruitful new experiments. In short, art meets science every single time we think about viruses.  We depend on art to make the invisible visible to our very thinking.

In our course, each protein artist’s work will state, “This is what a virus is according to me, the artist”.  That is aim of our course.  Ten weeks.  Count them.  They go by quickly.

These weeks are not solely a mad rush to graph out the latest science, though they might be that for some artists who are technically oriented.  Nor is it a race to dazzle the world with sensory stimulation that spills from one’s emotions about viruses, though some artists with deep feelings may be so inspired.  For most, these ten weeks are an opportunity to feel and think at the same time.  There are mysteries out there, and we do have some facts.  Art, in its ineluctable way, can give us a way to embrace our factual situation creatively — with deeper humanity . Kandinsky’s  abstract paintings from a hundred years ago were seen by many at the time as an unjustifiable breaking away from facts and reality. But did his detailed studies not reveal that there is much more to the world that we had missed before?  In the ten weeks ahead, that may be a good question for guiding our protein artists:  Viruses, sure, a lot is know about what one is.  But what is missing?

Squares and Circles.  Oil, by Wassily Kandinsky 1913.

Squares and Circles. Oil, by Wassily Kandinsky 1913.

Fear not.  Let your creativity run the show.  In the mean time, below are three works of art left to the world by one of the great originators of protein portraiture, Irving Geis, 1908-1997.  Take a look at that last one.  The viruses we are portraying this term don’t have to be human viruses!

myo_thumbnail Myoglobin

©2000 Howard HughesMedical Institute

cytc_thumbnail Cytochrome c

©2000 Howard Hughes Medical Institute

tbsv_thumbnail Tomato bushy stunt virus

©2000 Howard Hughes Medical Institute

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