When you think of “artistic inspiration,” the word “mildew” probably doesn't spring to mind. But you're not artist Andre Ferrella.
Mr. Ferrella's recipe for “Living Pictures” is simple, and calls for lots of time and improvisation. Start with this recipe for Ferrella's Primordial Soup:
Take 20 to 50 35-mm photographic negatives. Cut into strips of four images.
Place in one large airtight zipper-top plastic bag or a bucket with tight-fitting lid. Scrape mold, mildew, or fungi from studio floor or wall (reach into the dark nooks for best results) and place in bag with negatives. Sprinkle in a handful of fresh dirt. Add bodily fluids and clippings, strands of hair from hairbrush, or anything that might contain bacteria. Add tepid water to suit. Seal well. Let brew for four months to four years in a dark, dank place.
Check negatives every few weeks, until interesting effects are apparent. Be sure to shield nose when opening container.
Carefully remove clinging matter. Place negatives on enlarger, expose to light as per usual photographic procedure. Use a patent-pending “Ferrella Photo Easel” device to make the color-drenched, high-resolution photo groupings. Store negatives in plastic boxes, separated with hair-combs. Negatives will remain sticky, and bacteria will continue to grow and change them.
Display prints at art galleries and museums throughout United States, France, and Germany.
Bask in growing fame.
Several of Mr. Ferrella's large-scale works are on display through Nov. 19 at the University of Toledo's Center for the Visual Arts Gallery, 620 Grove Place, next to the Toledo Museum of Art. Mr. Ferrella is one of four University of Toledo alumni invited to display work in the show. His pictures are a marked contrast to the elegantly odd wood sculptures of Michael Morgenstern, realist portraits by Leslie Adams, and blown and formed glass by Steve Kemmerley.
Mr. Ferrella, 47, lives in Madison, Wis., a wide-open college town where art combines with social action, ecology, and higher education to create all manner of odd bedfellows. His studio is in his basement, he said, and that's where inspiration struck one morning in 1996.
“I'd taken a break from photography. My negatives were stored on the floor for a couple of years while I painted. I pulled out those negatives, and they were water-damaged, all moldy and gooey. I was really upset, thinking I'd destroyed all that work, all those images. But I looked at a couple of them. I put one in the enlarger, and I found something amazing!”
Photo negatives are made of plastic layered with food-grade gelatin and silver, he explained. When exposed to damp, fungus and bacteria will grow onto and into the negative surface, consuming the gelatin and excreting colorful by-products.
“It's like a Petri dish. Except for the plastic, it's all natural, all part of our environment,” the artist said.
Some of the pictures are bright russet, with lacy yellow edges. Others are brackish brown, black. They could be ultraviolet satellite photos of rugged coastlines, or perhaps marine life forms viewed through a microscope. But look closer. Often, the old image imprinted on the photographic negative lurks beneath the illuminated plant life.
The combined effect is a “find-the-hidden-picture” adventure. The most obvious one is the Brooklyn Bridge. But try to spot a portrait of the artist, a temple, an Egyptian inscription, a person riding a horse. “Kids really dig these,” Mr. Ferrella said. “They latch right on.”
But most children love ooey, gooey, earthy things.
“I think all these [images] are fascinating and interesting and different,” he said. “They convey who we are. They're basically processed in the same stuff that gave us life - primordial soup! It's part of us. We contain all this information in our cells.”
“Alumni 2000: An Exhibition of Work by Fine Arts Graduates” will remain at the University of Toledo's Center for the Visual Arts Gallery, 620 Grove Place, through Nov. 19. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday. Mr. Ferrella's work can also be seen at his “livingmuseum.com” Web site.