Nostoc by Ava Padilla

This piece began by exploring the research itself. Through genetics, microscopy, and ecology, the researchers investigated the diversity within the microbiome of a cyanobacterial alga called Nostoc. Conversations with Dr. Linda Graham and Dr. Patricia Arancibia-Ávila, two of the researchers studying this organism, provided insight into the ecological importance of algae, the physical characteristics and feelings of the Chilean wetland, and the reasons why they study algae.

Through the lens of a microscope, the mats of dark, amorphous Nostoc appear as translucent, amber-gold ropes interspersed with the diverse forms of their associated microbiota. The inherent beauty and value of these algal communities often goes unseen. Through the creation of this piece, Ava Padilla hopes to make visible that which is invisible, and to convey an expansiveness and quiet danger evocative of the landscape herself. To Ava, this sense of co-existing softness and intimidation is deeply intertwined with her understanding and expression of femininity in herself and her art.

When the mask is worn, it drapes to fit over the entirety of the wearer’s face.  Constructed with a silk-covered canvas base and hand-beaded netting, interpretations of the Nostoc and their microbiota come to life through glass beads and gemstones woven together with various stitches. Each suspended piece moves along with the dynamics of the wearer, and each piece is layered to obscure the wearer’s face. The viewer is confronted with a subversion of the familiar; instead of a face there are algae staring back. The interplay between viewer, wearer, and mask are representative of the relationships between people and landscapes and the capacity for mutual care and respect. Ava dedicates this piece to the protection and care of the Chilean Altiplano wetlands in which the Nostoc make their home.


Ava Padilla is a junior studying Botany at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Alongside her studies in science, she pursues interests in French and costume design! As a self-taught bead artist, Ava’s work spans many forms. She is drawn to making three-dimensional art with sculptural and surreal qualities. Her highly chaotic artistic process is rooted in the same careful observation and curiosity that drives her scientific learning. Ava is—at this very moment—most likely gardening, planning a new art technique to try, or cooking a meal with dear friends. If you’d like to check out the musings and explorations of this individual, visit her instagram at @wanderer.makes

ABOUT THE Water Researcher

Dr. Linda Graham is a Professor Emerita of Botany at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Dr. Graham’s research explores the evolutionary origin of land plants, the microbiomes of algae and plants, and the ecology of freshwater periphyton (which is the mixture of algae, detritus and microbes attached to submerged surfaces in most aquatic ecosystems).

Funded by the Center for Humanities HEX-U Undergraduate Exchange.