Microbiome-inspired artwork brings ‘echoes of DNA’ to UB’s new medical school building

Close-up of brightly colored microbiome sculpture.

Shasti O'Leary-Soudant's Gut Flora sculpture greets passengers as they come out of the Allen-Medical Campus station and into the new home of the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. Photo: Douglas Levere, University at Buffalo

Bold public sculpture in NFTA’s Allen-Medical Metro Rail station reflects growth of medical campus and city as a whole

Release Date: September 18, 2017 This content is archived.

Full-size Gut Flora sculpture.

Photo: Douglas Levere, University at Buffalo

“We are so pleased that the public transit entrance to our medical school is home to such a special, iconic piece of art. ”
Michael E. Cain, MD, Vice president for health sciences and dean
Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Take the escalator from the train tracks into Buffalo’s new Allen-Medical Metro Rail station and you’ll see them as you ascend: gigantic appendages of explosively bright color, like the limbs of some outsized metallic cephalopod.

Together, the seven 17-foot metal strands make up “Gut Flora,” the public art installation that has taken up permanent residence in the station inside the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University at Buffalo.

The artist discusses her creation in this video.

“This striking piece of artwork has turned a purely functional entrance into a unique downtown attraction in its own right,” says Michael E. Cain, MD, vice president for health sciences at UB and dean of the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. “We are so pleased that the public transit entrance to our medical school is home to such a special, iconic piece of art.”

The sculpture inside the Metro station — the first station located inside a Buffalo building — in some ways reflects this neighborhood’s dramatic transformation. Above “Gut Flora” rises UB’s new, eight-story, 628,000-square-foot medical school, which will allow more doctors to train in Buffalo. Across the street, patients receive care from the UBMD Physicians’ Group practices in the Conventus medical office building, while just up the block, construction is nearly complete on the new John R. Oishei Children’s Hospital.

“Gut Flora” was commissioned by the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority (NFTA).

"We are thrilled to bring this work to the NFTA’s Allen Street station, continuing their longstanding commitment to providing public art,” says Aaron Ott, curator of public art for the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. “The work’s biological theme is an ideal artistic expression of exactly what goes on in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, and on the growing medical campus. This installation provides an injection of color and vibrancy that is impossible to miss, and continues Buffalo’s transformation into an energetic and culturally robust place to live, work and grow.”

After soliciting designs from Buffalo’s eclectic artistic community, a committee that included NFTA leadership and curators from the Albright Knox and UB selected Buffalo artist Shasti O’Leary-Soudant, a clinical assistant professor in the UB Department of Art.

“The specific sculptural area where ‘Gut Flora’ is installed is a challenging space,” explains Rachel Adams, senior curator of exhibitions for the UB Art Galleries and a member of the selection committee. “Shasti’s proposal — which is now reality — almost eliminated the challenge of the space and enhanced it. The way that ‘Gut Flora’ seems to grow from the ground through into the ceiling allows visitors to view the work from all different places within the station and also from the street.”

Inspiration from the microbiome

While the piece O’Leary-Soudant would eventually create is bold and striking, her ideas for it began on the microscopic scale, stemming from her curiosity about the intricate structures of viruses and bacterial molecules.

The more she learned, the more interested she became in the emerging field of the microbiome and the concept that survival depends to a large extent on good bacteria.

“That idea of beneficial bacteria became the centerpiece of what I was trying to achieve,” she explains.

Similarly, she began to think of the city as “a corporeal body.”

“Look at the transportation systems, the streets, the public transit, all of these things, these are the veins, the digestive system and the circulatory systems of the body of the city,” she says.

How she got from thinking about beneficial bacteria to the sculpture that now inhabits the Metro station is, appropriately, full of twists and turns. Eventually, she settled on the idea of a series of columns torqueing and twisting up and, it almost seems, through the ceiling. Because she wanted to create the piece out of metal, she knew the project would be as much an engineering feat as an artistic one.

Architects of steel

That’s where the experts at Rigidized Metals Corp. came in. A Buffalo family business since 1940, its workers specialize in manufacturing deep textured metals. O’Leary-Soudant partnered with the company to create “Gut Flora.”

“These people are the architects of steel,” O’Leary-Soudant says. The rigidizing process serves to strengthen the steel’s structural integrity while also slightly increasing the surface area.

It was during the process of working with the engineers at Rigidized Steel that the most significant physical challenges emerged, such as trying to fit large pieces of metal together so that they demonstrated the kind of movement the artist had envisioned, despite the material’s rigidity.

Once the structural questions had been solved, O’Leary-Soudant chose to cover the columns in aerosolized powder coating to create a rich coat of enamel color. “It’s like car paint or nail polish. You put something in a subway, it needs to be long lasting. It has to stand up to the elements.”

After building each column inside Rigidized’s Ohio Street warehouse in the Old First Ward, each one had to be transported in a 24-foot truck to the Allen Street station. It took eight days for O’Leary-Soudant, her husband Jethro and her “indispensable” assistants Courtney Grim and Brian Wilcox to assemble the pieces. It then took five more nights to put it up. The crew, comprised of art installers from the Albright-Knox and riggers from Clark Rigging (another storied Western New York company) worked through the night to minimize transit disruption.

“I wanted to make something to augment the feeling of oh, I have to go to work or school,” O’Leary-Soudant says. “I wanted to create some sensation of pleasure, something eye-catching.”

Eye-catching it is. Watch anyone who passes through the station and they cannot help but stop and look.

But the artist thinks it’s the UB medical students who will pass “Gut Flora” every day who will get the most out of it. “If a medical student looks at it, they’re instantly going to make a connection with organisms. It looks profoundly biological. Just the torque of it echoes DNA. It’s a nod to what they’re researching; it’s about what they do. This art is about their lives.”

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