Feature Friday: Erik Carter

Updated: Apr 20

I’m always fascinated by artists who merge art and science in some way or another, so I was quite pleased to stumble upon the work of Erik Carter. Carter is a PhD candidate in microbiology and immunology (fancy, right?) who digs deeper into the cells and viruses of our bodies and represents them in elaborate and vibrant paintings. Carter gets a surprising amount of creative freedom as the subjects he’s painting aren’t actually this colorful, so while the imagery is inherently interesting, Carter inserts the vibrance and really makes everything pop.

I wish I could more effectively describe the ins and outs of Carter’s work but the virus stuff is well beyond my realm of understanding… Fortunately I got to have a quick chat with Carter about his awesome work and what goes into all of it. He gave some great answers and it makes for a fun read that will make you want to go look into some of the crazy stuff he’s representing. Check out his work and enjoy!

1. I always start off asking about the artists background and I understand you're a PhD candidate in microbiology and immunology so tell me how this path led you to art? How has staying with art and developing your craft changed while working in this rather demanding field? The synergy of science and art is always an interesting one so how did you develop it?

I’ve always been an artistically minded person, for as long as I can remember, and would draw every chance I got. I only became interested in science, generally, late in high school and virology/immunology, specifically, in Freshman year of college when I came across a podcast called This Week in Virology (TWiV). That sparked my interest and set me off on my current scientific trajectory.

I found that, while science satisfied the left side of my brain, the artsy right side of my brain needed some stimulation, which brought me back to drawing and painting. I started to explore painting viruses when I came across an absolutely beautiful electron micrograph (which is essentially a ‘photograph’ taken using a high-powered microscope that can see things as small as viruses) of an ebolavirus-infected cell. The image showed a single cell with thousands of thin, almost hair-like projections jutting out from it, absolutely overwhelming the cell – these were the ebolavirus particles. I found the image so stunning that I felt compelled to try and capture the beauty on canvas in vibrantly colored paint. When I realized how much fun it was to combine my art and my science, it took off from there.

2. How has your interest in viruses and related elements inspired your art? Were these two parallel fascinations that came together later in life or were these two things that you developed together from the start?

I would encourage your readers to do a quick Google image search for “virus false color electron micrograph”. Viruses are breathtakingly beautiful biological entities. When most people think of viruses, they think of the last time they had the flu or a nasty bout of diarrhea but, believe it or not, most known viruses are quite harmless to humans. Some may even be beneficial. But all are fascinating little biological machines; exquisitely evolving survival machines.

Painting is an important part of my life - especially when things in the lab become hectic and stressful - because it brings balance to my day. It serves as a sort of respite from the various stresses of working and learning in a busy lab environment. I think that two of the most uniquely human endeavors, unseen in any other species so far as we know, are the pursuits of scientific discovery and artistic expression. I get such a thrill from having a foot in both worlds, attempting to bridge them.

3. Viruses and things like it aren't typically related to art, or any visuals really, so how has merging these two elements developed your craft? Is it challenging to depict microscopic elements or do you enjoy it because you get a lot of creative freedom?

Merging biology and art is a pretty niche area of interest, but there are a few artists who do it. Like Luke Jerram who, with his ‘Glass Microbiology’ series, makes beautifully intricate blown-glass representations of viruses and other microbes, and David Goodsell, whose watercolor paintings of the inner workings of cells serve to illustrate just how cramped and complex a living cell truly is.

Creating artistic representations of microscopic (even sub-microscopic) biological systems and structures can be both challenging and liberating. Challenging in that, as a scientist, I feel a certain pressure (and obligation) to represent things in a scientifically accurate way. But liberating because, after all, it is art, and art is about expression. My overriding goal with my art is to depict these incredible things called viruses in a way that most people haven’t seen before – as vibrant, dynamic parasites from which biology has learned so much. And maybe, if I’m lucky, the viewer will learn one or two things or even have their interest sparked just enough to want to go out and learn more.

4. What is your process like? Does it begin with a lot on the science side or do you just choose your subject and dive into the art side? Does it vary? How do you decide the composition of your works and would you describe those compositions as more scientific or design oriented?

When I paint, I try to remain biologically accurate while granting myself the freedom to be imprecise. By that I mean, if a virus is known to infect neurons, I’ll portray it infecting a neuron. However, I will take some creative liberties like dramatizing the appearance of certain biological structures if it serves an aesthetic purpose.

Most of my paintings are based off of real electron micrograph (EM) images, so they have that tether to reality. Often, though, EMs can look a bit busy and aren’t always particularly nice to look at – at least for a non-biologist. So, what I do to design a composition is take elements from multiple EMs, remove any elements that don’t serve the overall image, and find a combination of structures (like viruses ‘budding’ off the surface of a cell, or two protein structures interacting) that more-or-less stays true to reality, but is compositionally more satisfying. I would say I try to lean more towards biological accuracy than artistic flair…but I generally keep the paintings fairly simple as far as the biology goes, so I’m able to avoid criticism from any nit-picky colleagues I may have.

5. Does your work relate directly to what you're studying at the time or are they separate entities?

What I paint isn’t usually directly related to what I’m working on at any given time because the breadth of viruses that I would like to paint is vast, while most virus research labs that I’ve worked in only focus on one or a few different viruses. Often the viruses that I paint are ones that I’m particularly interested in like ebolavirus, ones that have a unique and interesting appearance like smallpox or HIV, or ones that I know others to be interested in because they are frequently in the news, like Zika virus or influenza.

6. Finally, PLUGS! Where can people find you and your work? Any shows or events coming up? Anywhere that people can find your work, let them know!

People can find my virus art on my website: www.infectiousart.co

At the moment I have no shows on the docket, but I will typically post the dates/times of any upcoming shows on the Home Page of my website.