46 Chromosomes by Heidi Herinckx
About Heidi Herinckx
My inspiration for 46 chromosomes, my own personal human genome project, was inspired by the intrinsic beauty of DNA. I was first introduced to chromosomes when I was moonlighting as a night librarian at the Philadelphia Children’s Hospital medical library. At that time, I was a graduate student in Rutgers’ Medical Sociology program, and I was also working full time as a Research Assistant for the Philadelphia Child Guidance Center, on two studies related to mood and sleep patterns in adolescents and young adults diagnosed with early onset bipolar disorder.
As a night librarian, I worked two nights a week and checked out books to physicians who were diagnosing and treating genetic abnormalities and rare diseases in children. I read these books and learned about the wonders of DNA and how each cell of the human body contains 46 chromosomes, the recipe for how to build a human.
We are learning more all the time about how we are created from the union of two cells- a sperm from our father and an egg from our mother, and transformed into the complex multi-cellular organisms we become in just 10 months. And while the average human, in its miraculous perfection, is created in just 10 months, it took me, as an artist, 10 years to render these 46 chromosomes out of much cruder materials: beads, wire, wood and paper.
In the 1990’s, when I first incorporated DNA into my artistic pursuits, the mapping of the human genome was nearly complete. The first several artistic pieces I created were two dimensional mixed-media paper mosaics, representing different levels of magnification of chromosomes, DNA and the chemical bonds in one work. I often imagined creating three dimensional representations of chromosomes, but at that time I did not work in three dimensions. In 2007, a friend of mine got into making beaded jewelry. As I was thumbing through a book on bead pattern, I noticed that many beading patterns love to spiral. I immediately went to work modifying these spiral beading patterns to create a double helix. The first several beaded chromosomes focused on the double helix structure. The idea of using seed beads, small translucent cell-shaped modules, to build the DNA structure felt synchronistic.
One day, when looking down the barrel of the beaded tube, I noticed that the circumference made a “teddy bear head” shape. I wondered if I replicated this teddy bear head in a ¼ inch wood disc, and rotated the teddy bear heads, if the result would look like a double helix. And sure enough it did. So I cut out this wood pattern, stacked them, and rotated them to create another version of the double helix pattern in wood. The wooden chromosomes expanded and utilized different shaped modules including: X shapes, Y shapes, and moon shapes. I created 6 initial wooden pair of chromosomes (12 total) that were a subset of the original 46 chromosomes.
Finally, I wanted to represent the fuzzy spaghetti look of wound up DNA. This subset also speaks to epigenetics and how genetic expression is influenced by our lived experience. For this subset, I painted watercolor paper front and back and added images related to my genotype and phenotype such as red hair, blue eyes, pale skin and freckles. I also incorporated my lived experience like memories of people, diary pages, letters and written words, places and things that I love, the constellations and the ocean, to represent how the human experience becomes expressed in the fabric of our being.