Shaping the Origins of Life with Elzbieta Kurowska

Capturing the moment when lifeless, ambiguous matter is transformed into simple, living organisms, Elzbieta Kurowska recreates the creation of life itself in vivid, organic form.

Elzbieta (Ela) Kurowska is a Toronto-based artist, photographer, and biochemist. Fascinated by the origins of life, Ela explores the moment in Earth’s history when amorphous organic matter, subjected to extreme conditions of the environment, was forced to self-organize and transform into simple living organisms. By using a novel technique that combines photography, biochemistry and material science, Ela recreates this moment of transformation in otherworldly visions of light, colour, and form.

Using soft, solidified organic gels as substitutes for life-forming, complex molecules, she sculpts these small, life-like forms using various biochemistry lab techniques and manipulates them to reproduce “environmental stress”. Because some gels have photoelastic properties, or are able to show material stress in cross-polarized light, the most irregular and the most “self-organized” parts of their structure appear as varying bursts of colour and light.

In creating her gel sculptures, Ela collaborates with the forces of nature to reveal visual effects so spectacular and unpredictable, that they feel like the creation of life itself. From translucent, inanimate form to vivid, awe-inspiring vitality, Ela captures a unique moment of transformation in an unexpected gift of beauty.

Learn more about Elzbieta Kurowska
Instagram @elzbietakurowska3876
Ela on 500px


↥ Fermentia, Nikon D300S, 40 mm lens, f/8.0, focus stacking

Although Fermentia looks like emerging alien life or a cellular structure, its real size is actually about 2-3 cm in diameter.  To create this image I poured a liquefied, soft water-based gel into the slot between two glass panes, and added to it a few beads of superabsorbent gel, air bubbles and food coloring. Over a few hours, the beads swelled by absorbing water while the gel around them solidified. As the balls kept expanding, they compressed the surrounding solidified soft gel producing local deformations. The compressed areas were revealed as a luminous halo around the balls when the composition was illuminated from behind and photographed in cross-polarized light.


↥ Life Attractant, Nikon D300S, 40 mm lens, f/8.0, focus stacking

Life Attractant is a free standing, about 5 cm tall sculpture which I made from a sticky, elastic gel that does not display photoelastic properties.  This slowly dripping gel solidifies very quickly in room temperature. With the addition of a suspended orange-colored ball, Life Attractant resembles a surreal, otherworldly animal. 


↥ Papilia, Nikon D610, 60 mm lens, f/8.0, focus stacking

Papilia, a twisted butterfly, is an example of superimposing two see-through objects within the same image. In this case, the first object is the bent slab of the soft gel containing an immersed structure made out of the compact gel and the superabsorbent red-colored bead. The second one is a deformed mesh placed behind. Fragments of the mesh visible directly behind compact gel structures are distorted by gel discs acting as optical lens.


↥ Synergia, Nikon D610, 105 mm lens, f/8.0, focus stacking

To make this alien life form called Synergia, I used a compact green-colored gel and a superabsorbent orange-dyed bead. The compact gel was heated to liquefy and then dripped slowly into ice water, along with the bead. The rapidly cooled droplets solidified during the descent creating long, tear-like shapes whose stresses are revealed in polarized light. In the final step, the composition was arranged on the sheet of elastic gel with tiny air bubbles and captured it in the polarized light. The image has been inverted upside down to make the composition more dynamic.


↥ Shockwave, Nikon D610, 105 mm lens, f/8.0, focus stacking

Shockwave is an impression of a dramatic cosmic event made at a miniature scale. The vibrant orange-colored ball appears to collide with an elastic gel sheet, creating impact folds. To me, the tiny bubbles entrapped in the gel resemble remote stars. Again, as the elastic gel displays minimal photoelastic properties in the polarized light, I enhanced the vibrancy of folds in the image by illuminating them with an additional light source.


↥ Invertia, Nikon D610, 105 mm lens, f/8.0, focus stacking

Invertia depicts another miniature cosmic event but this time my basic setup was an open-face slab of a soft gel with red-colored superabsorbent bead immersed in the centre. To create radial rays around the swelling bead I placed a dried ribbed coral on top of it and I gently pressed it down for a few hours to make an impression of the pattern on the soft gel surface.


↤ Incendia, Nikon D610, 105 mm lens, f/8.0, focus stacking

Incendia is a simple but powerful image made by superimposing two translucent objects and capturing them together in the cross-polarized light.  The first object is a swelling orange-colored ball submerged in a soft gel and enclosed between two glass panes; its bright yellow halo is produced by the compression of the soft gel around the swelling bead and by the diffusion of orange dye. The second one is a small lump of deer fur; another odd item from my “special effects” collection.

↥ Glassland, Nikon D610, 60 mm lens, f/9.0, focus stacking

This miniature landscape was created from three different gels. A soft gel slab was placed on a bent plastic sheet to mimic the ground and the sky. The brightly colored thin leaves of the dried compact gel were arranged on the “ground” and allowed to absorb some moisture from the soft gel slab. The fully hydrated ball of the superabsorbent gel was positioned on the top of the structure. The thin leaves of the dried gel partly fused with the smooth surface of the soft gel underneath, and partly dried and curled, creating an impression of mountains and hills. 


↥ Daffodilia, Nikon D300S, 40 mm lens, f/8.0, focus stacking

Daffodilia is another magical free-standing alien life form. I made this structure by arranging a sheet of elastic gel into graceful folds on a clear glass pane and by adding both a small orange-colored gel ball and as well as plant hair. Daffodilia and its reflection are captured in the dark cross-polarized light. The sculpture is also illuminated by an additional light source to enhance its natural golden glow.

Learn more about Elzbieta Kurowska
Instagram @elzbietakurowska3876
Ela on 500px