They look like curlicues whispering “happy birthday” from atop a neatly wrapped present—the kind you make by running one blade of a pair of scissors along a ribbon until it’s just the right amount of festive.

Pay close attention, and you’ll realize the stained glass piece “Passage,” one of several currently on display at Cary Memorial Library, doesn’t depict birthday ribbons at all. Instead, it offers an artistic representation of a potassium channel selectivity filter—the stuff of Nobel laureate Roderick MacKinnon. Nearby, other stained glass images offer their own beauty: “Inhibition,” an HIV protease with the drug Indinavir—red, blue and crab-like; and “Contract,” whose protein filaments resemble beautifully woven strands, not muscle.

The aptly named exhibition “The Cellular Universe Through Stained Glass” runs through April 29 and features the work of Joel Kowit, Breakthrough Artist of Lexington, 2017. The award, given by the Lexington Council for the Arts, made its debut last year; Kowit, a Lexington resident since 1989, is its first recipient.

“Once we saw him, we thought, ‘this could have some legs,’” said Council for the Arts chair Seetha Ramnath.

Former professor with glassblowing 'addiction'

Although Kowit dabbled in drawing during his childhood, he hasn’t always been an artist. The 74-year-old spent 41 years as a biology professor at Emmanuel College. He discovered his artistic talent and passion by taking art classes there; they were free to him as a faculty member.

Painting offered an early portal to a different part of his brain, Kowit explained. He found painting inspiration on an 80,000-acre ranch in Wyoming, where he spent two weeks every summer from 1991 to 2010. He has painted scenes from the ranch, and drawn them in his journals. Talking about the place’s natural beauty, he pauses for emotion, stopped short by the memories.

Ever curious, Kowit took a multi-day glassblowing course at Massachusetts College of Art and Design at least a dozen times over 15 years. “And then, unfortunately, I developed an addiction to glassblowing,” he said. “Having molten glass in your hands and molding it is really incredible.”

Inspired by molecular life

With all of that experience under his belt, the biologist first tried out stained glass in 2015. Metaphorically looking through the microscope over the decades, it had never occurred to Kowit that he might one day turn to molecular life (too small to see, even through a microscope) artistic inspiration. “Not in the sense that I stepped back and thought about how beautiful they were,” he said of the cells and other tiny pieces of life at the heart of his field.

As he delved into his newest medium, though, the familiar images popped into his head.

“I thought, ‘this is what I want to do,’” he explained. “It was obvious that I was going to go back to this science.”

It’s proven a fruitful decision. Not only does Kowit carry a plethora of ideas for future stained glass pieces in his mind, but he’s exhibited beyond Cary Library (at LabCentral, for one) and his piece “Degradation” graced the cover of the Oct. 1, 2017 issue of Biochemical Journal.

Kowit said that his work sits at the intersection of science, art and graphic design. In 1981, he co-founded Immunology Workshops. The company offers three-day immunology courses to pharmaceutical company researchers. Creating the company’s presentations, he learned graphic design, bringing to life images inherent to immunology.

“It might be a diagram of T-cell activation, [or] diagrams of checkpoint inhibitors,” Kowit explained.

Named 'Breakthrough Artist'

Sitting in Cary Library recently, explaining everything from ganglion cells to green fluorescent protein, Kowit lit up; with his gentle demeanor and patience, he didn’t mind explaining and answering questions. It was easy to imagine him teaching.

As he spoke modestly of his stained glass technique, it was just as easy to imagine the professor emeritus as student. He praised his mentor, Dan Maher, for encouraging him. “[He] says, ‘just keep doing it and you’ll get better,’” he said.

With this in mind, about a year ago the Lexingtonian was looking to enter a science art competition when he found out about the Breakthrough Artist of Lexington award. Winning the $500 award “really is helping me to break through,” Kowit said. He’s using the money to have a new website built, and he has sold three stained glass works since receiving the award in October.

Ramnath said that the council chose Kowit for his art’s potential to resonate in Lexington beyond the artistic community. Moreover, “he had some really original subject matter,” she explained, “and brought it to life by using stained glass.” Additionally, “he had demonstrated a number of fairly well known followers.”

Unique science-based art

For now, Kowit sees his stained glass as niche art; he doesn’t know of anyone else who creates science-inspired images in the medium.

“I think it’s unique, but I also think it has a limited audience who can appreciate it,” he explained. “This is using a very old technology, so it’s different than the science art that I’ve seen.”

Kowit has his sights on the future--on selling more of his work and putting his basement studio to good use. Recognition is important, and welcome, but at its core, Kowit’s imagery emerges from within.

“Each of these has a very personal meaning to me,” he said of the work now on display at Cary Memorial Library. As for making art, he said: “It’s almost like I didn’t know how much I loved it until I started doing it.”