Petri Culture

Artist Klari Reis uses unconventional materials to create microbiologically inspired art.

It’s easy to see why artist Klari Reis describes her San Francisco studio as “sort of laboratory-like.” Wearing a Tyvek suit and a “massive” respirator, Reis works under controlled temperature and humidity conditions, painting forms inspired by microbiology onto a lab bench staple—disposable, plastic Petri dishes.

The hazmat gear is necessary because Reis’s paint is actually a two-part epoxy polymer, colored with industrial dyes. She describes it as a thick plastic similar to a resin but more rubbery.

“It’s typically used to seal cement for that ‘very shiny floor’ look. It’s not something you would pick up at the art supply store. Most of my materials are sort of…odd, which I like,” Reis says with a laugh.

The idea for her Petri dish paintings came to Reis more than 10 years ago, when she was in her early 20s. She became ill with Crohn’s disease and was hospitalized while she was a grad student in London. As a patient at King’s College Hospital, her doctor allowed her to come in to the lab and look at her own cells under a microscope.

“I found it really inspiring, being able to actually look at my own cells and see my cells reacting differently to different pharmaceuticals,” she says.

Her aim isn’t to faithfully recreate what she has seen under the microscope, but to evoke those cells and reactions in a colorful and visually interesting way. “For many years I really tried to copy exactly what was happening,” says Reis. “But these days I just am inspired by those images and don’t really try to copy as much.”

Reis paints three sizes of the dishes and assembles them into groups of 30, 60, or 150 plastic plates. Each installation is called “Hypochondria.” She has created works for clients including Microsoft and Royal Carribean. Reis also displays the individual works on her blog The Daily Dish.


“I’m always working on them,” Reis says. “It takes a couple weeks to make each dish, because there’s drying time and  layers involved. I work on quite a few at a time.” You can see more of Reis’s art, including paintings of maps and cellular structures on aluminum and wood panels, at her website.

Meet the Writer

About Annette Heist

Annette Heist is a former senior producer for Science Friday.