Kate Nichols

Bay Area artist Kate Nichols synthesizes nanoparticles to mimic structurally colored animals, grows artificial skin from microorganisms, and makes her own paints, following fifteenth-century recipes. The long tradition of painters as material innovators inspired Nichols to become the first artist-in-residence in the Alivisatos Lab, a nanoscience laboratory at UC Berkeley. In 2010, she was appointed a TED Fellow and was awarded a Jacob K. Javits Fellowship. Her artwork has been featured on the cover of the journal Nature, on the TED stage, in the Stavanger Kunstmuseum in Norway, and in The Leonardo Museum’s permanent collection. In 2015, Nichols was awarded the Richard Diebenkorn Teaching Fellowship, an honor SFAI extends to one early- to mid-career painter each year. This fall, Nichols will visit the Martin Lab at George Washington University, where she will learn to use CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing to create new patterns on butterflies’ wings.


Artist Statement

This series invites viewers to consider the ways “lifelike” paintings can be thought of as conceptual precursors to synthetic biology. On its face, the subject of my new paintings is two butterflies—one that scientists are working to bring back from extinction, and another that other scientists have engineered to alter its wings’ patterning.

I’m interested in the way these paintings suggest an animal liquefied, ready to assume new forms. Some evoke a painter’s palette; others, a petri dish growing wing material. Their round shape also suggests lenses. I’m trying to draw parallels between the distortion and displacement that accompanies focus, whether it’s optical focus or zeroing in on specific passages in genetic code. I’m thinking about the ways in which lensing is analogous to the ways scientists and engineers zero in on a desirable trait of an organism. They study this trait, they replicate it, and they displace it from its original context. And, in doing so, they create something new.

For centuries, painting was widely thought of as the “mirror of nature.” To the contemporary eye, virtuosic depictions of fruits or butterflies seem tame. Consider that early Christian theologians found lifelike paintings deeply troubling. These theologians warned that the ability to mimic is closely bound up in the power to create and destroy, the capability to topple existing order and to produce new order. Thus, a painter closely depicting a lifeform was thought to be dangerously close to participating in the act of creation.

This echoes common contemporary fears about synthetic biology: that scientists’ creating and modifying life-forms threatens to overturn natural order. We now live in the topsy-turvy world these early theologians feared—one populated by animals and plants brought into being, in part, through our efforts to copy nature, and in part by human imagination. Did lifelike paintings set us on the path to transgenic, glowing mice? That might be a bit of a reach. But what I find interesting here is the way these early paintings did set in motion a passionate, contentious conversation about the desires that drive mimesis and the anxieties it produces, which is a conversation that continues today—and which is a very important conversation to be having.

My new series explores this moment in the history of human mimesis through the practice that set this conversation in motion—painting.

Curriculum Vitae


2015  Richard Diebenkorn Teaching Fellow, San Francisco Art Institute

2015  Scientific Delirium Madness Residency, Djerassi Artist-in-Residence Program

2010 – present  TED Fellow

2008 – 2016  Artist-in-residence, Alivisatos Nanoscience Lab, University of California, Berkeley

2010 – 2013  Jacob K. Javits Fellow



2013  Master of Fine Arts, California College of the Arts, San Francisco, California

2010  Master of Arts in Visual Studies, University of California, Berkeley

2004  Bachelor of Arts in Studio Art, Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio



2016  Visiting Painting Faculty, San Francisco Art Institute

2015  Richard Diebenkorn Teaching Fellow, San Francisco Art Institute



2018 Group exhibition: Pleasure Garden, Eleanor Harwood Gallery, San Francisco, California, (curated by Eleanor Harwood)

2017  Solo exhibition: Angle of Incidence, Black Crown Gallery, Oakland, California, (curated by Chris Nickel and Chrissy Cano)

2017 Group exhibition: AbstrAction, Marin MOCA, (curated by Catharine Clark)

2015  Four-person exhibition: Article Biennial 2015, Stavanger Kunstmuseum, Stavanger, Norway, (curated by Hege Tapio)

2015  Group exhibition: Observations and Collections, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado (curated by Jennifer Kent)

2013  Group Exhibition: MFA Thesis Show 2013, California College of the Arts (curated by Glen Helfand)

2012  Group exhibition: Emergence and Structure, Lafayette College, Easton, Pennsylvania; MDC Freedom Tower Gallery, Miami, Florida; University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida (curated by Daniel Hill and Ron Janowich; catalogue essay by Jonah Lehrer)

2012  Solo exhibition: Through the Looking Glass, The Leonardo, Salt Lake City, Utah

2011  Group exhibition: New Insight 2011, Chicago, Illinois (curated by Susanne Ghez and Mia Ruyter)

2010  Solo exhibition: Scaled, Materials Research Society, San Francisco, California

2009  Solo exhibition: Drawings: Scaled, Mauve, Berkeley, California

2009  Group exhibition: Enormous Microscopic, Studio for Urban Projects, San Francisco, California, (curated by Phil Ross)



The Leonardo, Salt Lake City, Utah



2016  BergamoScienza, Bergamo, Italy

2016  Mills College Art Lecture Series, Mills College Art Museum, Oakland, California

2016  Visiting Artist and Scholar Lecture Series, San Francisco Art Institute

2016  Science of Art Lecture Series, Stanford University, Stanford, California

2015  Exploring Science in the Studio, AICAD Symposium, California College of the Arts, San Francisco

2015  Stavanger Kunstmuseum, Stavanger, Norway

2014  San Jose Museum of Art, San Jose, California

2013  Leonardo public lecture series talk, Stanford University, Stanford, California

2012  Analogous Thinking in the Arts and Sciences public lecture series talk, University of Florida, Gainsville

2012  TEDxRainier, Seattle, Washington

2012  TEDActive, Palm Springs, California

2010  3M, Minneapolis, Minnesota

2010  The Exploratorium, San Francisco, California

2010  The Case Foundation, Washington D.C.

2010  TED, Long Beach, California



Artwork featured as cover: 

2012  Through the Looking Glass featured on cover of Nature, March 22, 2012.

Feature articles: 

2015  “The Ambiguous Colors of Nanotechnology,” Jeanne Carstensen, Nautilus. 

2015  “Color by Shape,” Jyoti Madhusoodanan, ACS Science Central. 

2012  “Plasmons Resonate in Atomic-Scale Metal Particles,” Andrew Myers, Stanford University Engineering News. 

2010  “TED Fellow using nanoparticle paint,” Kristen Phillipkoski, BoingBoing. 

2010  “Body of Evidence,” Kristen Phillipkoski, BoingBoing. 

2010  “Color by Physics,” Lauren Rugani, Symmetry Magazine, Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.


2016  “Fusing Age-Old Artistic Tradition With Cutting-Edge Technology: A Q-and-A with Kate Nichols, artist in residence at a nanoscience laboratory,” Emily Tamkin, Slate Magazine, September 20, 2016.


2010  “Introducing TED Fellow: Kate Nichols,” Helen Walters, Business Week. 


2011  The Leonardo Museum produced a short film to accompany my installation, Through the Looking Glass,

which is also featured on theleonardo.org.

2010  “Color by Nano: The Art of Kate Nichols,” ran on two shows, Gallery Crawl and Quest: Science on the Spot

on KQED Public Television, San Francisco.


2012  Emergence and Structure. (Catalogue essay by Jonah Lehrer.)

2015  Article Bienniale, Satvanger Kunstmuseum. (Catalogue essay by Nora S. Vaage.)

Artwork featured and discussed in scholarly journal article: 

2013  “Engineering plasmonic metal colloids through composition and structural design,” N. E. Motl, A. F. Smith, and C. J. DeSantis, Chemical Society Reviews.