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Cynthia Beth Rubin

C B Rubin Studio / Artist in Residence, Menden-Deuer Lab at the University of Rhode Island

Susanne Menden-Deuer

Graduate School of Oceanography, the University of Rhode Island

Cynthia Beth Rubin, Artist

Susanne Menden-Deuer, oceanographer


Do Plankton Have Feelings?

General Description


The images of microscopic plankton in this series represent a novel approach to science/art hybrid visualization. Although at first glance they may appear to be drawings/paintings in traditional “natural” media, they are in fact the result of mapping and remapping of hand and digital drawings onto the low resolution micro-photographs that are the visual by-products of scientific research. Advances in digital imaging, the artist’s own long term engagement with the visual output of scientific research, and such simple advances such as low cost large format printing, all provided a crucial step in evolution of this body of work.


The series prioritizes bringing a visceral connection to the unseen and often forgotten microscopic life that is so essential to our existence and the survival of planet earth as we know it. Plankton, the essential microscopic life that provides a significant portion of the oxygen we breathe and essential protein at the bottom of the food chain.  Without these organisms at the bottom of the food chain, we could not survive.  Yet for most of the general public, if they know plankton or think of them at all, it is through the lens (literally) of scientific imagery and inquiry.  As awe inspiring as high resolution micro-photography may be,  it a genre open to few artists, as it requires access to very expensive equipment, mastery of photography, and an understanding of ocean life.


Drawing, with subtle differences in line weight and direction, allows us to feel the plankton as alive, even when frequently the photographic imagery came from dead specimens in the lab. Both analogue and digital drawings tingle with a sensitivity to flow, weight, and implied movement that are difficult to find in the frozen moments of photography.  Nonetheless, photography depicts scientific details that might be overlooked in gesture drawings. By fluidly combining drawing and micro-photography, with many changes back and forth, the artworks still resonate with scientists as relating to the original specimens.  In fact, as the source micro-photographs were generally produced in the course of scientific research, without attention to visual details, these hybrid digital images may offer a more accurate depiction of plankton than the original low resolution micro-photographs shot against gray backgrounds.  


Do plankton have feelings?  We do not really know, but we do know that we need to have feelings for them, and that art can bring us closer to feeling empathy for what we can only see through a mediated process.

D-Art Interview:

1.  What inspired you to create this artwork?
We sought to make the invisible visible, to communicate the importance of microscopic beings to our Earth, including the well being of humans.

Creating empathy for something we cannot see, that mostly we forget exists, in an interesting challenge. The motivation came from science, from an interest in helping people be aware of the multitude of organisms that are part of the our complex ecosystems, and that can be affected by climate change.

We live in a time when more than ever people understand that microscopic life impacts human life. Plankton are relatively large in comparison to viruses and bacteria, however in we rely on microscopes to see them.

2.  Where do most of your creative inspiration come from?
Research into new ideas and new ways of looking at the different aspects of the world inspires creative thought.  In this way, artists and scientists are similar. One motivation for this work was to bring the fluidity of gesture drawing into the realm microscopic life, which generally is only presented in photography and scientific illustration.

3.  How do you choose new ideas derived from the creative process?
Weekly scientific lab meetings explore new challenges in understanding microscopic ocean life. While the scientist formulates new experiments and methods of analysis, the artist can respond with more interest and empathy for ocean life, leading to new ideas.  Additionally, innovations the media arts, ranging from photographic micro-captures of specimens to inexpensive large scale printing, all lead to new approaches.

4.  Could you please talk about how you felt about the importance of
your research applied to your art when you were creating?

Scientific research is rooted in agreed upon procedures and metrics: the scientific method and the results, numbers, tables and data figures. That is a limited set of tools. On the other hand, the results provide inspiration. So the idea is to leverage the insights gained and express those in novel ways.

5.  As an artist, what do you most want to tell the viewers?
These works both tell a story and function as journeys into the explorations of rhythms and movements of line, texture, and color that make visual art pleasurable. The more explicit goal is creating empathy for the essential microscopic life that is responsible for much of the oxygen on earth and an important part of the food chain that nourishes human life. Viewers also need to slow down, look, reflect, and simply enjoy the vitality of the forms of plankton as presented in these works.

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