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The gRift (in active development) is a participatory art project where Jenifer Wightman gifts a mud painting to 25 Thinkers in the hopes that she will be able to harvest 25 Responses from these Thinkers. Invitations to participate will be sent out in 2022 and 2023.

This page is meant to answer questions the invited Thinkers may have.

  • What is a mud painting?
  • Who is invited to play the gRift?
  • If I agree to participate in the gRift, what is the process for having a mud painting installed?
  • How is the mud painting displayed?
  • How do I care for the mud painting once it is installed?
  • What else should I know about?
  • When will the mud painting be installed?
  • What is the goal of this project?

What is a 'mud painting'?

A mud painting aestheticizes a technique developed by a 19th c. Ukrainian soil biologist, Sergei Winogradsky. A "Winogradsky Column" is a clear column that holds water saturated soil (mud); if exposed to light, the microbes that are native to that sample photosynthesize pigment. As the microbes proliferate, their microbial pigments can also proliferate. With sufficient growth the pigmented communities become visible to the human eye and we can witness an evolving colorfield 'painting' as microbial mozaics rise and fall. The pigments are an indicator to watch the transformation of biological life within the finite column of soil, water, and sunlight. To view a 1.5 minute video explanation of the process, please visit this site:

Who is invited to play The gRift?

Well, all kinds of thinkers and do-ers: poets, astrobiologists, social justice activists, critical theorists, economists, anarchists, international lawyers, ecologists. Who knows who is going to be netted by this conceptual swindle!?

Want to suggest someone to invite?

Fill out this google form, here.

What is the process for installation?

The installation involves 3 decisions:

  • WHEN is a mutually acceptable time for Jeni to visit and install at your preferred location?
    ----Installation could take as little as 1 day, but should not take more than 3 days.
  • WHERE do you want it installed?
    ----on your living room wall, at your office, your new spot on Sabbatical, your aging parents' back porch, your grandkids' playroom, a public wall at work. We can discuss your interests or limitations by email or phone.
  • WHAT mud would you like Jeni to collect?
    ----Consider diverse ecosystems within a 20-mile radius of your install; Jeni will collect soil samples from those landscapes and construct a mini-landscape painting for you.

How is the mud painting displayed?

The frame design was based on the dimension of a Robert Rauschenberg 1953 piece entitled "Erased de Kooning Drawing", in which Rauschenberg erased a Willem de Kooning drawing (16.5" high x 14.125" wide). Your plexiglass frame will have the same internal dimensions. Just as Rauschenberg erased de Kooning, each new wave of microbial pigmentation will have incorporated the previous pigmentation in its new composition. That is, this gifted box of finite materials is poetically claiming infinite expression (unless some of you theoretical physicists disagree!). This work takes on a re-composition deposition!

Plexiglass riff on the 'Erased de Kooning Drawing'
Plexiglass riff on the 'Erased de Kooning Drawing'

Other Details of Installation

  • The wall mount requires 2-4 screws.
  • The piece weighs less than 15 lbs.
  • There are 2 energy efficient LED lights that angle out ~10" to each side.
  • The lights require a regular outlet and there is a timer for the lights.
  • It is intended to be indoors (it is not water, wind, or wild animal proof).
  • If necessary, Jeni could design a self-standing table version but you will need to contact her for suitability.

How do I care for the 'mud painting' once it is installed?

It's really simple!

  • LIGHT: In order to *photosynthesize* pigment, the microbes need natural or synthetic light. The frame is designed with energy efficient LED lights and a timer to ensure 4-12 hours of light/day. The timer will be set to your preferred schedule but you may change it at any time. To note, even if you chose to use only natural light, the lights will remain as they really improve your personal viewing experience (the shiny plexiglass over dark mud creates a highly reflective mirror if not properly illuminated).
  • WATER: The frame is designed to be completely saturated. The water will evaporate. You will need to add small amounts of water to maintain a saturated system. Don't worry if it 'dries' out - you will just have changed the course of the evolving landscape. Just add water (if chlorinated, let the water sit out overnight and add the next day).
  • BASIC HEAT: While of course microbes can live in the arctic and in hot springs, a non-freezing condition is necessary to prevent the plexiglass from cracking. That said, warmer temperatures generally afford faster growth.

What else should I know about?

What is added to the mud?

  • At least 1 egg (it provides a source of sulfur - an important element in energy production by microbes).
  • Some newspaper which is cheap cellulose calories the microbes chomp up.
  • Some chalk (it provides pH buffer).

What are some issues?

Winogradsky Columns are projects that 2nd, 6th, and 12th graders make in science class to learn about soil, ecology, succession, energy systems, etc. Soil is a living landscape!

Think of this as a glorified see-through flowerpot that doesn't drain and grows pigments (the microbes harvest energy and humans harvest surplus color).

  • There can be a 'biological' odor from the sulfur in the eggs at around week 2. It is short-lived.
  • The mud expands in the first couple of weeks and can overflow (so it will be underfilled at day 1 of the installation). Please don't choose to hang it over your favorite rug or paper print.
  • It can dry out. Water sets up the +/- oxygen gradient in the column while preventing the mud from becoming a source of dust. Please water it when it gets >0.5" below the top. Jeni will supply you with a pippetor to add or subtract water.
  • It can seem neat in the beginning, but many can become 'bored' and stop looking. Consider taking photographs or notes or whatever to keep your attention/memory. Or not. This is to point out there is a *doldrum* in this process because it moves at such a different cadence then humans.
  • Jeni will never be able to predict how yours will turn out. She has had subtle nuanced pieces (read: duds), but most are surprising.
  • The plexiglass scratches and can turn white with the wrong cleaners. Jeni will supply you with tools to clean it.
  • The lifespan of the LED strips is unknown. Holler if you need a replacement.
  • If you have any questions/concerns, please email Jeni.


Ideally, Jeni would like to document (and possibly blog about) the installation process with you. She would also like to return to document how your painting has developed (>1 year after install). However, these artifacts of our process will only occur with your permission; your privacy to explore this muddy process in your preferred space, comes first.

What if I don't want it anymore!

Just contact Jeni and she will work with you to arrange a suitable solution (refine, relocate, remove, regift, recycle).

What is my responsibility or my 'Response'?

Only you know!

Think of it as a conceptual dinner party - and you were invited! Just bring your thoughts, your hands, or your materials to the larger discussion. Lee Marchalonis --a talented printmaker, book and box-making colleague-- is going to compile all of your differing responses into a beautiful catalogue? sculptural display object? We don't know yet! She's up for integrating sculptures, paper napkins, peer-reviewed articles, photographs, equations, news clippings, emails, poems, canned soup, collages, cartoons, paintings, scribbles, models, diagrams, whatever. This is a good old fashioned call-and-response.

When will the mud painting be installed?

To be honest, this is the shakiest part of the entire project. There are many unknowns such as Who accepts? When do they accept? Where do they live? Does covid evolve? etc.

That said, the goal is to install 25 mud paintings at 25 Thinkers preferred locations over the next 12-30 months. A few limitations:

  • Jeni cannot collect mud in freezing temperatures (the ground is frozen).
  • Jeni will be traveling during vacation and weekends; she will necessarily need to be efficient with time.
  • Jeni will try to bundle several different installations together based on geography of respondents.

[All this 'efficiency' aside, Jeni (me, writing in 3rd person for these FAQs) would be delighted to share an iced tea and chat with you but I'm anxious I've already overloaded you with my peculiar request!]

The Goal?

Microbes are the oldest inhabitants on Earth; they have an extraordinary capacity for industry, economy, niche exploration, innovation, and resource sharing. Plus they are the first painters (Georges Seurat was a 19th c. pointillist painter but these creatures made the biological world with their pointillism > 2 billion years ago)! This project hopes to spotlight their process in a playful and celebratory exchange structure.

  • First and foremost this is a Thank You for the work you have contributed to our world.
  • Second, this project attempts to bring the mud processes into your field of view.
  • Third, Lee will make a compelling structure compiling your work into a network of objects for relational thinking.
  • Fourth, your ideation will be credited and shared with the world (gallery shows, presentations, panels, essays, TBD).
  • Fifth, there is an evasive fifth here, TBD, but it is a longing for a global dinner party that iterates us out of our absurd manifestation of 'humanity' and back into our world.

This gift is a grift that re-gifts to other grifters.

Thank You.

Thank you for reading and considering this hare-brained scheme to harvest your thinking. The mud is thought provoking for thoughtful people; may we craft new ideas or develop more equitable systems of belonging, individually and together.