Pint of Science Collaboration - Charlotte Morrison and Dr Michaela Frye

This Creative Reaction by glass artist Charlotte Morrison is a response to the work of Dr. Michaela Frye, who is doing research into lung and skin stem cells at the Medical Research Council Stem Cell Institute in Cambridge. Charlotte recounts her experience...

work in progress

First cell structures in glass

My own work often has a starting point in our complex relationship with the body. It moves between abstracted medical and scientific imagery and descriptions to personal reflections of actual lived experiences. But although my work frequently explores issues related to identity and a sense of self, I had yet to do work on stem cells – the absolute key to who and what we are.

The Beginning

As my knowledge about stem cells was rather limited (and likely to be based on outdated notions) I decided to spend a bit of time preparing before meeting up with Dr Frye. At this early stage in our collaboration Michaela sent me vital information about her own research and guided me to various useful websites. One that has continued to be of great use was the Organisation for European Stem Cell research and I would strongly advise anyone interested in this field to check it out.


So on a cold February day in 2015 I finally met with Michaela at her offices in Cambridge. We spent the next 1 ½ hours talking about her current research into skin and lung stem cells. Whenever we touched on the ethics of such research (the law in the UK had changed just days earlier) she made careful distinctions between embryonic stem cells and those of an adult. And for me this turned out to be particularly useful in forming an understanding of stem cells and their development and dynamics.

Michaela explained that her work focuses on adult skin and lung stem cells which are already highly specialized cells – albeit with the potential for further specialization depending on the environment. But although it seems clear that stem cells react to environmental changes it is less clear how they know which differentiations are needed.

In the past I have made art-work based on skin and scars. And I was therefore excited to hear more about Dr. Frye’s current research into wounds and healing. For as we all know scar tissue can be quite different to other skin. For a large part we heal perfectly - yet subtle differences remain at the site of a wound. Why?

It has been known for a long time that skin has different layers of tissue – consisting of different types of skin cells. Yet – when we heal – how does the body know which cells to re-create where? It would be disastrous if cells were replicated in the wrong places. So how and why skin stem cells differentiate is extremely important for how we heal after a wound. And that is in my “layman” terms what Michaela’s work is about.

As we spoke I was curious about what sort of images Michaela looks at in relation to this work. She showed me images of stem cells – but what turned out to be more important for me were the images showing different stages of wound healing activity. Some of these images were emailed to me and they subsequently provided me with the visual inspiration that I needed for my work.

Mould Making

Plaster and latex moulds 

Reflection and brain-storming

I came away from my meeting with Michaela Frye more curious than ever about what stem cells do and how they operate. I had questions about what causes them to differentiate in certain ways and a certain times (e.g. during body trauma/wounding). And so our conversation continued for a little longer by email while I speculated about the type of environmental changes that are required for specific differentiations to be initiated.

At this stage I had to blatantly ignore some of what I read in scientific papers about complex biochemical reactions – because to be honest I simply don’t understand differentiation at that level. But I do understand the basic premises. And these were what I ended up working with.

I was faced with extreme abstractions of the body – and the question was where to begin with all of this. The concepts, theories and science associated with stem cells were one thing – and the abstract images attached to them were another.

The initial questions I asked myself as an artist related to direction. Did I want to turn one abstraction into another? Should I try and illustrate the science behind this? Or could I somehow make something concrete out of what limited understanding we have of how stem cells function and what makes them differentiate?

For over a month I wrote down ideas whilst finishing another project. I began to experiment with materials, I cast an area of the body which I though may symbolise the underlying layers of the skin, and I collected images of skin structures online and from Michaela. I became fascinate with the different layers and types of skin cells – most of which could be created from one skin stem cell.

Imaginary Cells

Cell structures in glass close-up 

Outcome and Artwork in Progress

In the end I decided to explore two strands further. First of all I wanted to make stem cell analogies in glass and secondly I was keen to explore healing processes based on the imagery that Michaela had provided from her lab.

Stem Cell Analogies

I began to make stem cell analogies partly because I wanted in simple visual ways to examine the basic concepts of stem cells – what they are about and how they behave. Thus, I set about making my own small versions of imaginary cells in kiln formed glass. I explored how the glass changes depending on kiln temperatures and surfaces. So by simply changing the environment I was able to initiate changes in the glass.

For this project I used a simple palette of colours – all of which were related to the scientific and medical images that inspired the work. I created structures in plaster which loosely represented some of the structures in different layers of skin – and on these I placed different combinations of glass powders for firing.

After a number of kiln firings I had a collection of different cell-like forms made in glass. These were carefully grouped while I considered how best to present them - for it was important to give the viewer a sense of looking at slight variations of the same. So for a while they lay on my studio table alongside the scientific images they were inspired by. And I slowly reached an unusual decision to show them in exactly this way – rather than present them out of context. 

Casting Process

Plaster casts of cylinders In the kiln 

Differentiation and Repair - Cylinders of Healing

I was fascinated with images of the healing processes that Michaela had sent me. They clearly showed that we “heal from within” – a term often used in relation to psychological recovery. My initial thought was to make a triptych of cast glass cubes which represented different stages of healing. However, my eye kept returning to a simple drawn illustration which showed a mouse having a “plug” taken from it for analysis. It was this “plug” that eventually led to the experimentation with cylindrical shapes instead of cubes.

Soon I was rolling out porcelain and recreating surface structures of the wound. These have now been turned into plaster moulds and the idea is to somehow create a sense of movement and activity within the cylinders – as if we are looking at something that we can’t quite get at – while giving a sense of specimens in glass jars. But this is still work-in-progress and many aspects are still unresolved.

I currently aim for the cylinders to have both a sense of magnification of inner structures while also showing the changes that are taking place on the surface. In this piece the level of activity in the different layers is more important than actual representation and illustration of cells. Kiln casting glass, even of these sizes, is a long process taking days at a time.

But if successful (and I will not know for several weeks yet) this small collection may present the viewer with specimens of healing - samples of how we heal from within. 


Cylinders of Healing - Charlotte Morrison

Cylinders of Healing

Where next?

The art-works I am making in response to my interactions with Michaela Frye will be shown at the Pint of Science festival in Cambridge in May. First they will appear in the pub on the night that Michaela is speaking about stem cells. And a few days later they become a small part of an exhibition showing the artistic outcomes of all the collaborations that took place for A Pint of Science – Creative Reactions. After that they will be integrated into my ever changing body of work. Personally and professionally I have found it both enriching and rewarding to participate in this pilot project. Art and science is slowly coming together again after years of separation – and the outcomes are both exciting and stimulating.

Come and see Charlotte's work and all of the participating artists at the Creative Reactions event 21st May from 1pm

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