Key West Citizen Article on the Petri Dish Project


Article from the Key West Citizen: Tuesday, July 17, 2012

An island, defined by about 1,000 Petri dishes
BY GWEN FILOSA Citizen Staff

Start with the humble Petri dish, the palm-sized, cylindrical covered plastic plate designed to nurture bacteria in research labs.

Then add a personal touch, or perhaps several hundred of them, and Dr. Julius Petri’s 1887 invention turns into much more than the essential science fair accessory.

“It’s also a little shaped canvas,” said Jim Toia, an artist-in-residence at The Studios of Key West, as he stood before almost 1,000 of the Petri dishes that comprise his latest installation.

Each Petri dish is its own tiny work of art, handmade by the likes of Florida Keys public school students, celebrated artists in Italy and from across the county, elderly residents at the Bayshore Manor home, and at least one county jail inmate.

A year in the making, Toia last August sent out this blanket request to locals and friends from most corners of the world: Fill a 3 1/2-inch Petri dish with something that answers the question, “What does an island mean to you?

Hundreds of Keys residents followed suit.

Toia, 50, a New Jersey-born-and-bred artist who studied at Bard College before traveling around the world as assistant to the neon artist Stephen Antonakos, came to the Keys in December to collect the dishes.

He met with school kids and encouraged each to create an individualized dish.

“I tried to explain to them what a metaphor is,” Toia said. “I said, close your eyes and picture what an island means to you.”

When the students opened their eyes, Toia was holding up a drawing of a patch of sand holding up a palm tree.

“It’s a symbol that you invariably have in your head. So I stood on a chair and said, I’m on an island,” said Toia.

He soon began sorting through the barrage of Petri dishes, gluing and taping on the covers and labeling each one before grouping them together – via clear tape – to piece together an installation that hangs from the ceiling, lit from above, and is the centerpiece of The Studios’ Thursday night “Walk on White” exhibit, set for 6 to 9 p.m.

“There is a method to my madness here,” said Toia, patiently letting a visitor check out a dozen or so of the Petri dishes one-by-one on Monday.

At first glance inside The Studios’ main gallery, 600 White St., “The Petri Island Project: The Keys,” resembles stained glass or a 3-D mosaic.

Up close, the installation is like a cluster of journal entries or school desk graffiti, some poignant and others funny, yet each one somehow profound.

Helen Harrison, owner of the Harrison Gallery, cut up one of her shoes and dropped some pieces inside her Petri dish.

“She’ll never have to wear shoes again,” Toia explained, of the Key West tradition employed by many residents despite the size of their checking accounts.

One contributor filled a dish with starfish – five tiny gold ones atop a larger pale one.

Alex Symington, of Key West, placed an expired gecko atop a Fausto’s grocery receipt.

Someone from Homer, Alaska, arranged nine pencils worn down to the stubs in a star-like shape.

Humor played into several dish-fillers: One contains a tiny packet of orange chewable Dramamine.

Yet another dish holds travel-size samples of a Chinese brand mouthwash and toothpaste tube. An out-of-towner sent a dish filled with cactus thorns. Tiny shells, sand and other island staples appeared.

“My work is about nature, it’s a collaboration between me and things in nature,” said Toia, who wanted the artist-in-residency in Key West to learn about the tropical islands.

His work includes paintings built upon dried out jellyfish and spider webs.

The Keys public schools represented the island in style.

“All glittery and feathery ones are from Gerald Adams,” Toia said, referring to the elementary school on Stock Island.

Thomas Murray, a painter in Texas, sent three dishes: each one containing a piece of paper he had soaked in the waters of the Rio Grande River, at spots in Texas and North Colorado.

A man doing time in the county jail sent in two dishes, as part of the “Art Behind Bars” rehabilitation program. Each one held a painstakingly detailed pencil drawing of almost a dozen Key West icons, such as a stately-type home in Key West, a fishing pier and a sailboat.

Then there is Sigsbee Charter third-grader Corey Vanderhoof’s dish that holds a piece of green construction paper with the handwritten message, “I sang a song into my Petri dish.”

Toia raves over this one. A song contained.

The dishes are grouped together by school, Key West, Alaska, and even a batch from a town in Italy.

A.B. Maloy, of Key West, who started a blog devoted to stories of people who move away from the island only to find themselves returning years later, was asked to contribute a dish.

Hers is a single typed word in lowercase letters on white paper: “home.”

Toia’s installation reflects the goal of The Studios’ residency program, which each year takes in 35 artists from all walks of media for one-month stays in the nonprofit’s Old Town digs.

The residency program is fast becoming a sought-after opportunity.

This upcoming year’s applications numbered 175, compared with last year’s 85 entrants for the same 35 spots.

But The Studios, a nonprofit about to welcome a new director, Jed Dodds, of Baltimore, only wants artists willing and able to make the Florida Keys a vital component of their work.

“People could go anywhere, there are a lot of programs. We want to know that they have a vested interest in incorporating Key West into their projects,” said Elena Devers, deputy director of The Studios. “They’re guaranteed to really fall in love with Key West and then go back and spread that magic about Key West.”

Toia, a professor of art at Lafayette College in Easton, Penn., wanted to learn about the Keys and teach art to students, only to end up making the island a second home.

He and his wife, Angela Adams, a registered nurse and a singer, recently bought a house in the Unity church neighborhood, planning to divide their time between Jersey and South Florida.

The artist who approaches his work more like a lab researcher than an art history major, said his penchant for turning sea critters and insects into paintings or sculpture is best defined by his second exhibit on display at the Studios, called “Tempting Nature.”

“I only have so much control over it,” Toia said of his work. “I’m tempting the world to (mess) with me.”

The Studios of Key West