As I have mentioned before, most of the time art and science coexist in my brain. While the setting, such as being at work vs. at home, may dictate which side dominates, the other side rarely shuts off. In my scientific career, I have spent over 13 years using microscopy to acquire and analyze data. When I look at fluorescence microscopy images, they always tickle my aesthetic side. The opposite is also true. While I use art to (partially) shut off rational thinking, I cannot prevent my left hemisphere from taking part in the decision making process.
Throughout the time I have spent so far on making this piece, I have been feeling conflicted about the purity of my technique. While I tend to refer to my work as “mixed media” (for the lack of a better term), I really don’t like to mix my methods. For example, sewing the large yellow rondelle beads directly onto the canvas went against my usual approach of using small seed beads on a wire. This “noisy internal dialogue” interferes with my sense of flow. Where do you find the balance of staying true to your style and not being afraid of learning new things? Is it an excuse for not taking the risk of expanding your horizons or does it really feed into defining your identity?
This week, I came across a funny picture on Instagram showing different approaches people take to pick up pipette tips from a box in the lab. Although I have seen something similar before, it still made me laugh. I realized that while I certainly cannot call myself a particularly neat person, I always use the so-called “predictable” method (as opposed to the “artist”). When I need to use a common box that was used in any other way, it causes a bit of a visceral reaction. The same probably goes for my art. It needs to follow a smooth, repetitive and possibly predictable process to be satisfying.
And so far that is mostly what I have been doing. As Darcy mentions in her entry this week, the original image is too complex to be fully rendered, so I need to be selective in which cells I decide to make. My typical method involves stringing beads on a thin wire, but given the complexity of the network, I have considered doing some sewing of the thin processes as well. So far that hasn’t happened. It has been particularly challenging to create the long connections between separate cell bodies using wire, but I am trudging along. Sooner or later I will probably give in and switch to needle and thread, but then what’s more important - accurate recreation of the image or a sense of unity?
The weeks have passed quickly and my painting (Image #3) is nearly finished. My original decision to paint on wood with acrylic inks is because the wood grain has an organic pattern that interacts with the overlying image. I chose inks because they are transparent and sink into the wood in a satisfying way, acting more like a stain than opaque paint. Inks are also fragile and yet always leave their trace on the wood. Once laid down it is impossible to completely erase them. This requires careful painting and decision making throughout the process.
Although I have never used fluorescent or metallic inks before, I was drawn to them for this piece because of the brightness of the digital image that Yana and I began with (Image # 1). Digitization injects light into an image, making it more luminous than it is. I wanted to somehow mirror that brightness. The interesting thing is that the fluorescent pigments will slowly lose their luminous quality as they fluoresce away their excitability to UV light. The neurons were “artificially” stained before Yana imaged the culture with an confocal microscope. (Image #1). I took this image a step further, digitally, to arrive at “Mapping Manhattan”(image #2). Using our respective art techniques, Yana and I are each bringing this scientific image into the realm of the artist.
Looking at the artwork Yana and I are making brings me back to the idea of scientific models I talked about in Blog # 10 (November 16th.) In some ways, Yana’s beadwork and my painting are both abstract models of the original image. In my piece (Image#3), I was fairly careful to render it accurately yet it is still less complex than the original. Details are left unresolved, helping to emphasize the main structures. To be useful in explaining complex phenomena, a model must pare down information to its essentials. The model can then make the overarching characteristics of something, such as a network of cells, more accessible to any viewer.
Another important aspect of scientific models is the ability to manipulate various dimensions. In the Week 11 Blogs of Diaa & Stephanos, Stephanos presents his mathematical model of neuronal activity in memory. Mathematical models expand our ability to visualize processes and events that our brains are not capable of holding onto in ordinary circumstances. This type of modeling is a powerful simplification because it allows us to then manipulate variables and that our conscious minds would lose track of within several mental operations.
Scientific models use the same technique as artist’s images in simplifying and emphasizing specific aspects of phenomena. If all details are included in a “scene”, we get lost in the noise. Sensory processing in the brain also plays that role for us by directing our attention to the salient details around us from moment to moment and then constructing a model of that experience in our brains. The model becomes a memory which may be altered repeatedly over time in the process of being stored, retrieved and stored again.
Our brains need this sorting to take place to direct our attention to the most essential aspects of an experience. Once the basic structure of a memory or knowledge about the world is formed, we can more easily embellish it with more detail. Learning through time and experience requires us to redesign or reorganize the model, often increasing its scale and complexity. But it must start simply. I have learned this from teaching.
So if the model creates the structure within which new information and experiences can fit, then the role of the artist and scientist is to create a compelling, accessible and comprehensive model or image that the viewer can take away and refer to later, developing it further with their future experiences. Again, I would like to point to the Beholder’s Share.
Over the past several months, I have been listening to a lot of art-related podcasts. Currently, my favorite one is “Your Creative Push”. In the process of listening to interviews of multiple artists, certain elements appear again and again. These include:
In several of her posts, Darcy wrote about the importance of “beholder’s share” in viewing art. While from a creative perspective, the concept sounds very poetic, a similar approach in science would have been called “bias” and would carry a much more negative connotation. But as much as we would like to remain objective in recording our scientific observations, we know that we are all guilty of it. When you are using data to construct a cohesive scientific model, it is akin to assembling a puzzle - you do your best to make the pieces fit together. This means that rather than trying to fit a “square peg in a round hole”, you begin your search with an assumption that you know what you are looking for to complete the missing pieces.
So how does this relate to art? Do we go out into the world with the full intentions of openly observing our surroundings or are we consciously or subconsciously looking for a particular puzzle piece that is missing in our current work? I believe that the latter version is probably more prominent than we would like to admit. We perceive the world through the prism of looking for a solution for our current challenge (in both art and science).
Last week I wrote about the inspiration I drew from Theordore Rousseau’s painting “The Forest in the Winter at Sunset”, which I wanted to combine with a jewel of hope. This week I happened to go to the Brooklyn Museum, where I saw the following 2 paintings. What in the world do they have to do with my work? Well, I was mesmerized by minuscule scale of a single person juxtaposed against the vastness of each of these landscapes.
The same feeling came from observing the work of Richard Gaston, who photographs people as tiny speckles against the grandiose backdrop of nature. This is how I wanted to position the white jewel of hope mentioned in my previous post against the background of the intertwined neurons.
Over the last several days, I was finally able to start working on the first layer of blue neurons from Darcy’s image. I am continuing the prop up all of the cells and now adding long processes to connect them to each other and eventually create a dense network.
And I am just beginning to play around with the question of where the white jewel should go…
If we accept that simplified models (such as my example of the cell in the last blog) make scientific knowledge more accessible, I think art also has a powerful role that is similar. Part of what art evokes is an emotional response in the viewer. Emotion motivates interest and makes an idea meaningful and without it, we have difficulty caring even if we do understand something intellectually. So, to make science more widely appreciated it must be presented in the language of enthusiasm, inspiration, and connectedness to other human concerns. These are all
components of what we call “beauty”.
The thing that has always drawn me to science is beauty. The elegance of an explanation or the integration of questions and observations into an awestruck moment of clarity. The sheer aesthetic burst that hits me in the chest when I look at Ernst Haeckel's radiolarians or the grief at the present acidification of our oceans, is enough to convince me that it is how I feel about nature that makes me want to explore it.
Both Yana and I are working from the above image in our respective residency projects. I am slowly transforming this image into a painting. In my last blog post, I showed to progress over five weeks. The following image is my progress so far.
I am understanding this image more deeply and it is becoming a sort of companion. My attention is focused on discovering the intricacies of it. A carefully crafted artwork becomes a manifestation born from an intimate connection between the image and me. I know and care about it. I have just discovered a book on this topic that I am anxious to read, Drawing as a Way of Knowing in Art and Science by Gemma Anderson. Drawing and painting are a type of close observation that requires ongoing interpretation, evaluation, and commitment. Missteps become glaring. I am learning so much about so many things while I work out the possibilities of this piece. I suppose my point is that the process of making art is personal for me and I want to convey that in some way. The viewer, however, only needs to pay attention to the beholder’s share.
This emotional connection to things we study closely is essential whether it is subatomic particles, bacteria, neurons or a painting. Andrea Wulf in “The Invention of Nature” eloquently revisits Alexander Von Humboldt’s conviction that “memories and emotional responses would always form part of man’s experience and understanding of nature”. In Humboldt’s “Cosmos” he united all sources of scientific discovery of the mid-1800s with the passion of a poet. He emphasized that all knowledge should be integrated and made accessible to the general public. Scientific models embody a theory and can act as a powerful tool to further our objective understanding of nature. The arts enrich and enliven this theoretical structure, make new connections and even reorganize it. Creativity drives the questions we ask that lead to the refinement of human understanding. Emotion motivates us by giving meaning and purpose to the process of “finding out” about the natural world and ourselves in it.
The original idea for my current project was inspired by a specific series of events in my life last year. To me, using the layers of neurons in this work represents certain layers of my knowledge, interests and passions, which have been temporarily covered up and moved to the back burner.
Looking through my sketchbook, I came across an idea that I jotted down last November, while visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art. While it is not the type of art I would usually go to see, “The Forest in the Winter at Sunset” painting by Theodore Rousseau caught my attention. I remember, I sat down and contemplated over it for a long time. I was trying to find a way to translate it into my art style. While I have seen a lot of artists draw parallels between neurons and trees, I was trying to dig for something deeper. I wanted to catch the essence of being caught in a dense thicket. I took out my sketchbook and scribbled the following idea along with some notes. I was trying to figure out what to place in the center.
Around the picture I had the following notes:
A bit later, the idea evolved into this, which I temporarily titled “Hope in a forest”…
My current project with Darcy is deeply rooted in these ideas that were floating through my head last year. But as the project progresses, it continues to be influenced by more current events as well. That is why I am considering revisiting a couple of elements that I have used in my previous pieces. Namely, placing a clear white jewel somewhere in the depth of the network, similar to the way I did it here:
I may also follow one of my original ideas and allow certain branches to reach out beyond the limits set by the canvas.
But for now, I am working through creating enough cell bodies to sufficiently populate the canvas.
When I look at this image it inspires so many metaphors for me. These ideas tumble over each other and intertwine in a beautiful, tangled pattern of nature... both nature out there and the nature inside me.
All organic systems require connectivity. From atoms to cells to ecological webs which all connect life together into a vibrant, scintillating web of communication and interdependence. We cannot separate out one component from this complex set of relationships because one thing removed, changes both the system and changes the component.
Yana’s and my artwork flows from this image and carries our unique responses. In the end, our separate pieces will reveal something of the minds that have created them and our individual interpretation of what is meaningful in the image. I am increasingly convinced that this process is rich with ideas and insight.
My progress so far…
Progress is slow for both Yana and me because we have both chosen deliberate and meticulous methods. This is good in the end because we can watch our work unfold with time to think about what is developing. For me, this is the point of doing the work. Ideas swirl around in my head and finally, the insights start to gell. This takes time.
I had the pleasure of spending the past weekend with my wonderful children who are steeped in science and also deeply appreciate the arts. We had lively discussions of many of the questions I am asking in this project about the close and necessary relationship between science and the arts. My stepson, Andrew Cameron (a microbiology professor), he came up with the idea of scientific models as being one of the closest connections between science and the arts. I have previously talked about the arts as being a Gestalt that originates in the right hemisphere of the brain and also the importance of this integrating part of our brain in processing, enriching and storing knowledge. Andrew’s idea is an elegant demonstration of this.
A scientific model often takes highly complex and abstract ideas and builds a framework that makes those ideas more accessible because it favors simplicity. An example of this is the cell. The model may simplify the structure and function of the cell makes it more approachable to everyone. A grade 9 science student who has very little previous knowledge of a eukaryotic cell would process the model very differently from a geneticist, a physiologist or a virologist, who would, in turn, bring different emphasis to their viewing.
In a scientific model, all the pieces must fit, relate and interact and are less meaningful if reduced to their parts. A scientific model is a testable framework that contains the overall understanding in a particular scientific theory but also acts as a beacon for moving the research forward. A scientist can then go about designing new research, fitting in new information and even predicting what will eventually be discovered to flesh out the model (eg: the Higgs boson in particle physics).
Assuming that an artwork is a representation of the artist's abstract and complex experience, it may be a framework similar to scientific models. A work of art contains interrelated and interdependent content for the viewer to grapple with. But art, like scientific models, also exposes holes, such as ambivalence, that allows the viewer to flesh out the artwork and extract personal and universal meaning. This relates to my previous discussion of the beholder’s share developed by Rigel, Gombrich, and Kriss. Great art must leave room in its overall “structure” for the viewer to gain unique insights and in some way light the path forward to new art and ideas.
I will carry on with these ideas next week and discuss the organic and dynamic nature of scientific models and art.
Last week, Darcy, Kate and I had a very productive Skype call, where I expressed my concern about the technical challenges of attaching the beaded cells to the canvas in a way to would make them stand. Kate suggested using acrylic rods. It was a good start, but honestly, I was not thrilled with the idea. I felt that the width of the rods, despite being hidden behind cells, would take away from the delicate nature of the image. But it got me thinking…
The next day, I went back to the bead store and found long, thin black beads. I created the cells with a long and sturdy wire stem in the back. The stem was threaded through the black beads and then the wire was pierced through the canvas. But now what?...
I was really tempted to stick small pieces of Styrofoam to the back ends of the wires, but again, that would prevent me from doing any further sewing. So for the time being, I just put small blobs of modeling clay onto the tips to keep them from falling. Now imagine doing that several times, flipping the canvas back and forth and hoping that nothing would fall out. Slowly, I was able to create and attach nine purple cells. As with the yellow beads in the background, I need to find a compromise with myself on which cells to include and which to leave out. I was particularly concerned about the relatively uneven distribution of the purple cells across the image giving a sense of imbalance.
This is where I’ve hit a wall. The process of creating each cell was so slow and intricate that I decided to take a break from the actual artwork and think about the logistics of creating the next layer - the light blue cells. When I bought the black cylindrical beads, I got them in 2 lengths with about a 1.5-fold difference.
I suppose my interest SciArt is not only to investigate the ways in which the arts and sciences work together but also to argue that they are critically important to each other and in a sense inseparable. One of the ways I study this intersection is through my own artwork and so will continually return to this theme. During the Age of Enlightenment, as rationalism and empiricism vied for dominance in the scientific approach to knowledge, they both moved science further and further from the arts. This separation has persisted until fairly recently.
One of the most important scientists of the Age of the Enlightenment, Alexander Von Humboldt (1769-1859) did not have the attitude that our emotionally dominated intuition should remain out of the picture when trying to decipher the complexity of nature. A close friend of the polymath, Goethe and the philosopher Schelling, Humboldt saw nature as an integrated whole where all organisms and processes are interdependent. According to Andrea Wulf in The Invention of Nature , Humboldt tirelessly explored, measured and wrote about the natural world he experienced through his global travels. His copious writings always contained both close scientific observations of nature and powerful poetic prose. Humboldt allowed his emotions and sense of the connectedness of all things to create a highly accurate and compelling vision of the whole of nature and the way it interconnected. He was even able to show how economies, politics and human-induced climate change are all shaped by the characteristics of the natural world. But most importantly, Humboldt was the first rigorous scientist to point out that humanity is as dependent as any species on a richly diverse planet.
The difficulty humanity has in viewing nature in this highly interconnected way is partly because of the way our brains organize our experiences. The human mind seems to use opposites as a way of understanding the world. These can be as simple as bad vs good or as sophisticated as romanticism vs rationality. It is more a mental tactic than a realistic view of the world and grossly oversimplifies the way nature functions. This dichotomizing of concepts, unfortunately, leads to a “this or that”, “us or them” worldview that is misleading because nature (including humanity) is more an integrated and interdependent whole in which opposites are on a continuum and its components are more alike than they are different.
It takes hard mental work to avoid these biases. This is exactly why we need the rigors of science to give us a less prejudiced view of nature. Yet science is more powerful and insightful if working with the great integrator … the arts. So it seems more important than ever that the arts and sciences reunite to create a more complex and less biased view of ourselves and nature. The arts also allow us to be more comfortable with ambivalence and there is more than enough of that to go around!
Here is this week’s progress on my the interpretation of “Mapping Manhattan”... I think of Humboldt as I work slowly (and a bit painfully) towards a more resolved image. Excited to see what Yana is coming up with her equally meticulous rendering of this image.
Last weekend, I mostly finished sewing the first layer of yellow rondelle beads. In the original microscopy image, the cell nuclei were colored bright blue, due to being labeled with Hoechst stain, which labels DNA. In Darcy’s version of the image, she switched this color to pale yellow, which makes them look more delicate and maybe a bit sad. The vast majority of the nuclei do not show cell staining around them (light blue in Darcy’s version), suggesting that they are most likely the remnants of dead cells. This after thought makes me feel like the pale yellow color is even more fitting.
After creating this “lawn” of atrophied cells, I began to think about how I would like to depict that ones that have survived. First of all, I wanted the living cells to be raised above the surface, similar to the butterflies in Joel Amit’s work I posted two weeks ago. This is where I faced a major challenge. I intended to use medium sized beads for cell bodies, cover them with a pattern of small seed beads and follow Sally Curcio’s method of elevating these structures on pins (see the post form two weeks ago). Developing this technique required me to delve into the T and E parts of STEAM: Technology and Engineering, as well as some level of Math. I ended up spending the whole week performing what I jokingly called “pilot experiments”, which might be referred to as studies in art or prototypes in engineering.
None of the methods suited what I was trying to portray. On Saturday, Darcy, Kate and I had our next Skype call, where I received some helpful suggestions on how to attach fully elevated structures to a canvas. The very next day, I rushed off to the bead store with an idea of my own that merged their suggestions with some elements I was thinking about before. The materials I was initially looking to get turned out to cost an arm and leg, so I had to compromise and change my plan again.
The set of pictures below shows the series of “experiments” I performed to determine the optimal method for creating the cell bodies, before arriving at my final version, which is shown on the white background on the bottom. The background has a stain, because I used my daughter’s old canvas to try to prop it up before risking damaging my own.
It took me a long time to decide on whether I should stay true to the colors on Darcy’s image, or if I can put some bright blue Hoechst stain back in. Quite honestly, I ended up doing it primarily due to being unable to find the right shape stones in colors that would match. But I guess this color can serve as an additional factor that distinguishes the living cells. As you may have guessed, the large photo on the right shows how the whole cell came out. This is a first of many.
This week I am on to the next challenge: if propping these structures up requires me to stick wires through the canvas into a supportive layer of Styrofoam that I will attach in the back, how do I do that without losing my ability to keep sewing other elements onto the canvas?....
I have started painting the drawing of the projected image I talked about in last week’s blog. The digitally rendered microscopy image I am working from, “Mapping Manhattan”, is very complex and so the initial drawing is like an imperfect maze. I’m not trying to replicate Yana’s original microscopy image but instead I am just watching how it evolves through the stages I have imagined. The painting process demands that I pay close attention to the original image because progress is slow. I, therefore, have a lot of time to think about what I am doing.
I started with the magenta because it has a distinct pattern and there is less of it than the other colors. I used the magenta structures to orient myself to the whole space and then added the yellow cell bodies. My drawing is such a mass of tiny lines that I have to hunt for every structure. It felt like I was stargazing. I had to find a clear recognizable constellation of structures and work outward from that, painstakingly filling in more and more detail. My drawing will relate to the original electron microscopy image that Yana made but at this point, I am most interested in the degree to which that happens. At this point, it is emerging as a map which reflects perfectly my sense of trying to navigate its structure.
This process interesting because it allows me to not only get to know the image better but to observe myself observing the process. I thought about scientific observation mainly. This is because every time we take a data set and translate or distill it, we lose something or at the very least, change something. It is the natural evolution of the information processed by our creative brains that defines the final character of what we call knowledge of the “natural” world. While painting, I could see myself constantly interpreting the image, making choices about what to emphasize and what to forget about. At times, I felt like I was blatantly fudging the data.
So, after a number of hours spent “dissecting” my drawing, I was more convinced that the role of scientific observation is to preserve the original data as well as possible because otherwise our creative brains will shape and change it without our conscious awareness. If we are creatively structuring of our reality with only oblique reference to the already filtered data of our senses, we need the rigors of science to keep us in check. Science puts together a solid scaffold we can then jump off of in the search for creative ideas that often must lie outside of scientific methodologies, in scientific theory, new experimental approaches and the arts which can inform all of these.
After settling on creating “Mapping Manhattan”, this week I finally got a chance to go out and buy some supplies, including a canvas and beads. I painted the canvas with black paint (though it ended up looking a bit like wood in the photo) to create the background that is typical for fluorescence microscopy images. When shopping for beads, I had an internal debate on whether I should stay true to my method of using small seed beads for recreating all “pixels” in the image; or if I should choose the bead type based on the shapes present in the actual image. I ended up choosing so called “rondelle” beads, which have multiple faces, to recreate the yellow nuclei scattered across the image. I also purchased bright purple beads for the occasional cells that Darcy pseudo-colored this way in the image. Unfortunately, the light blue beads that are required for the majority of the cells in the image were backordered.
I began by studying the image (which we later discussed with Darcy as an important step in creating art) and soon realized that there were too many yellow nuclei for me to feasibly fit on the canvas. This made me think of a conversation I had with another artist earlier this year. After looking at my works “Tortured” and “All Wrapped Up”, he asked me about how I decide which parts of a microscopy image to include and which to leave out. At the time, my gut instinct was to say that I include everything. However, this is not always feasible.
Coincidentally, I began to work “Mapping Manhattan” project soon after attending the “Infinite Potentials” exhibit organized by the SciArt Center. There, I spoke with several artists, who described an element of entropy that goes into creating their work, presumably mimicking the partially random chains of events that occur in nature. Similar to what I have heard before, they spoke about allowing the artwork to lead the artist, rather than the other way around. My scientific mindset struggled to understand. Yet, when I looked at the almost insurmountable amount of elements in Darcy’s image and thought of the question about leaving out certain elements, I decided to compromise. Therefore, I chose certain geometrical combinations of nuclei, which I called “motifs”, and used them as guidelines for creating a semi-random distribution of rondelle beads representing the nuclei. While trying to stay true to the overall composition, I realized that they ended up taking slightly different positions relative to each other than in the original image, but I guess that is OK. In contrast to some of my previous works, I am looking forward to working with one color at a time, layering and developing the piece over time in all 3 dimensions.
What the work shows us.
So, here I am again. After a week of percolating, I started my painting. One approach to image development I have used over the years is projection and redrawing. I usually work from a spontaneous abstract sketch and project it onto a much larger paper or wood panel. I redraw or paint it using a number of different approaches. I am able to study the evolution of the image as it changes in scale and media. For more on this process, visit my website darcyelisejohnson.com
I have long been fascinated by the content and purpose of an image whether for science or art. What does it teach us? What information does it distill? Why is it compelling to look at? Drawing and painting are one of the ways I can study an image and gain insights into its many interpretations and incarnations. Yana and I had a long Skype conversation this morning. We discussed a re-occurring topic... What is art for? Can artistic and scientific imagery inform each other? What does this say about what we are each working on artistically in this residency collaboration?
Questions, questions, questions… the driving force behind both art and science.
So in response to all of these questions sometimes I need to stop thinking and just work …. to observe and understand what I am doing. Here was my experience yesterday as I began the painting…
First, I projected the image Yana and I have decided to work on in our own ways.
Then, I projected this digital image onto a prepared wooden panel and redrew to.
Here is the finished drawing, that is waiting in my studio for the first layer of acrylic inks.
So, I now have a better understanding of my purpose and direction in this project. It has come from the metacognition we all use, all the time...observing ourselves observing the world. As I was drawing, I became familiar with the image in a deeper way. I gathered details and interconnections. How is my interpretation of this image related to others I have drawn in the past? What details am I focusing on? What type of emotional response do I have to the image and why? What do I choose to leave out, because when we process an image mentally, we must leave things out, we must make choices and it is the choices we make that become the most interesting aspect of the finished work. Again, questions are the most important part of the process. Answer one and another pops up.
How might this type of observation apply to science? If scientists make observations of natural phenomena in a particular situation then another scientist must be able to reconstruct this “experiment” and observe the same thing. Seems simple enough but it is incredibly difficult to individually understand the limits of objectivity in the human brain. I’m not suggesting we can't do this, in fact, I’m really saying that we need the rigor of science to codify nature in any predictable way because, without this structure, it is all art.
Darcy and I have decided to move forward with the image she called “Mapping Manhattan.” From the beginning of our collaboration, I told Darcy that I would like to create something that would represent the synthesis of the field of neuroscience and the context of New York. Initially, I sent her a sketch that I made a couple months before beginning this residency. As before, it was only meant to help me get an idea down on paper, not necessarily being representative of the end product. I wanted to use it as an opportunity to merge several elements that I recently came across. I will give some examples below.
In the beginning of this summer, I took my daughter to the Children’s Museum of the Arts in New York City. Going in, I expected to spend some time with her, guiding her through some simple drawing or sculpting hands-on activities that the museum provides for the kids. I was in for a big surprise. In one of the rooms, I saw the work of Sally Curcio and was completely blown away. Under a large glass bubble, there was a bright reconstruction of the Central Park Reservoir made out of beads. Next to it, another bubble showed a depiction of Miami Beach, also out of beads. And then there was a large fictional landscape. I remember thinking that it has been a really long time since I last felt so mesmerized and excited about something. I was hooked on this beadwork.
In August, my family went on vacation to California and while walking through Chinatown in San Francisco, I stumbled upon a gallery featuring works by Joel Amit. Most of his works were mosaics made of miniature butterflies, birds or fish. These elements were handcrafted to be similar in shape, yet all of them were uniquely different. They were protruding to various heights from the surface, creating 3-dimensional images that could be related or completely different from the individual components. On the way home, I was deep in thought about how I could incorporate something similar in my work.
Given Darcy’s creation of “Mapping Manhattan,” I am currently playing around with how I could merge these elements and marry them to my medium of beadwork.
Time to Focus
Yana and my discussions and posts are focusing on a collaborative artwork stemming from Mapping Manhattan (below). As I talked about in the last post, this is Yana’s confocal microscopy image of neurons that was not useful for science but became a playground for artistic ideas for both of us. I now need to come up with my next step in our collaboration. The problem is that I have so many ideas and possible approaches that I feel myself shutting down. This is a universal difficulty with creativity. How to home in on the exact approach and media for an artwork, to the exclusion of others. Because I’m a hoarder of ideas and possibilities in art, it is even more difficult.
Here are the questions I am absorbed by right now: Are there more insights and expressions available in this image for me? It will require a certain amount of deconstruction so that some space is created to reenter the work. I didn't realize it would be this problematic. I want to have some idea of both the steps and the outcome so I can relax into the work. Otherwise, the process is aimless and goes down a blind alley very quickly.
So, as artists and scientists how do we decide or choose the specific method to answer a question? Well, I suppose we first need to refine the question. What am I trying to communicate? What problem am I trying to solve? What insight am I trying to uncover? Can I answer these questions in a conscious rational way or do I need to allow my subconscious mind to hit on a solution? Either way, I’m stuck. I enjoy the image the way it is. Is there any room to move beyond what it is now? Is that what we mean by “finished”... no more possibilities... complete and self-contained? It’s like a small death.
I turn to the section of Lenard Shlain’s, Leonardo's Brain on creativity and insight. The right hemisphere goes on processing long after our conscious, logical left hemisphere has moved on to more immediate pressures. According to current neuroscience, this explains the sudden flash of insight that happens after we stop thinking about a problem consciously and rationally. The solution bubbles up later into consciousness sometime while our left hemisphere is otherwise occupied. The theory is that there are times we need to shut off the language and linear processing such a logical evaluation in our dominant left hemisphere to let the right hemisphere to come up with more creative solutions.
So, I went to my studio today to prepare a large wooden cradle for something… not sure what yet. Then I came back to my computer and played with Mapping Manhattan layered on the wood surface in Photoshop. Here are some results.
Waiting for insight….
What defines a success or failure? Does it depend on objective data or a subjective opinion? And following that, can there be different views of the same physical object? Also, how much of this should be defined by the informed originator versus the unknowing spectator? During one of our conversations with Darcy and Kate, we spoke about the importance of the artist's intentions and whether or not it matters if they are correctly interpreted by the people viewing the art.
At my current I job, I often deal with experiments performed by others and therefore cannot always control how well an experiment is performed. I just end up imaging the samples and doing my best to analyze them in a way that would allow us to extract at least some useful information. Last week, I received samples that were particularly troublesome. From a biological perspective, the images were quite terrible. And then it occurred to me that "one (wo)man's trash is another (wo)man's treasure" and decided to send some of these images to Darcy to see what she thinks. I thought I would leave them up for her interpretation at first and then fill in the details if necessary. Darcy appeared to be fascinated and said that these images acted as an immediate form of inspiration for her. She eagerly got to work and began manipulating the images in Photoshop. Please check out her post to see the beautiful renderings she has come up with.
For quite some time now, Darcy and I have been talking about merging the elements of networks, free form drawings, neuronal connections and even cities. Looking at images 4 and 5 below made me think of satellite images of cities at night, with the black space corresponding to nearby bodies of water. In reality they are just patches of dense neuronal cultures that got damaged during the immunofluorescence staining process. Image 8 looks like a city next to a beautiful beach with clear blue water. The truth is that it was just taken too close to the edge of a cell culture well, resulting in a lot of auto-fluorescence.
So how do we relate this to art? What did you think of the images when you first saw them?
Did you feel disillusioned after reading the real descriptions? Do you prefer to know and understand or to wonder? These are the questions I have be struggling with for some time. If SciArt is meant, at least in part, to educate people about the current scientific achievements, what is the best balance between presenting accurate information and leaving things up for interpretation?
And finally, what do you see in image 9?
Networks in Nature and the Idea of Connectedness
Yana and I have been exploring her electron microscope images of neuron networks, some of which I have rendered using Photoshop. I do this as a way to better understand the image, its structure and possible interpretations. Images initially evoke an intuitive response, especially when we are not told what the image is about.
Yana’s images of neurons made me think of networks and in some cases, the disturbance of a network. I have always been interested in the idea of complex connections at all scales of human experience: nerves, blood, lymph, lungs, leaves, roots, the food web, migration patterns, rivers, roads, flight paths, hydro lines, social media, the internet... they seem to pop up everywhere we go. These are connectors that both communicate and exchange. The essential pickup and delivery system required in profoundly interdependent world created by collections of cells and other natural processes.
So what happens when we cannot connect, particularly socially. Are we slowly deprived of our needs? I would say ultimately, yes! We need our connections but they can exist out of our line of sight or under our skin. If we are always conscious of our need to connect, we become overwhelmed. Our subconscious is meant to deal with those underlying processes because our conscious minds are not very good at it. We are supposed to be paying attention to what is going on in the moment. Processing complex sensory input, making snap decisions that require the information of the present. Trying to connect all of the time through social media or our online presence can interfere with our ability to pay attention to what is relevant right now. I think it can interfere with the unique experiences that make us individuals but of course, it doesn't have to.
Digital connection is so fast and so vast compared to our part in it that it is difficult to visualize. Perhaps like people’s ability to understand the circulation of the blood before Harvey’s great experiment demonstrated it. William Harvey Experiment. Can we dissect the present digital connections and understand them? The problem is that we are embedded in it. This is similar to thinking about consciousness or hitting a home run because we are trying to understand what we are doing, while we are doing it.
Over the last couple of weeks, Darcy and I have been discussing the parallel aspects that are present in the daily lives of artists and scientists. One topic that has repeatedly come up is the comparison scientists’ lab notebooks and artists’ sketchbooks. In both professions, these records serve as a place to document methods, results and progress over time. They provide a framework for keeping track of what has been done and what has or hasn’t worked. Thereby, in theory, they should provide a space where we could not only gather data, but also brainstorm ideas; thereby allowing us to trace the evolution of our thinking process over time.
However, this is where things begin to diverge. Several years ago I came across a wonderful article by Beth Schachter, a science communications consultant who taught scientific writing in my graduate school. In it, Beth talks about the “dry” aspects of a typical lab notebook, where scientists only record solid facts, observations and some common sense conclusions. She questions how this practice deprives us of the true potential of using a notebook as a creative play space for generating ideas, making connections and coming up with truly novel hypotheses.
Unfortunately, lab notebooks are considered to be legal documents, which makes lab notebook keeping a dry and un-gratifying process. In following the rules, you are expected to only record solid data and factual statements that could be used in court if necessary. Therefore, scientists are actually strongly discouraged from writing any personal interpretations in their notebooks, as these may lead to more disputes.
Compare this to an artist’s sketchbook, which provides complete freedom of experimentation with different concepts, which may never be seen by anyone but the artist, if he/she so chooses. Here, the notebook is used at an earlier, more “hypothetical” stage to try out different ideas and look at potential outcomes, rather than recording observed results. It is more akin to a personal journal, allowing for risks and tracing the artist’s self-discovery over time. This makes it a much more personal space that an artist may view as private. And of course, the artist’s sketchbook is much more visual, rather than focused on writing.
People are known to respond differently to different forms of communication. Some people learn better through listening, reading or writing down information. I believe that I belong to the group of people who respond best to visual methods of presentation. A couple years ago, I found myself struggling with holding multiple pieces of information about my research project in my head. I began to draw diagrams and jot down thoughts on potential connections between findings in a separate journal. I tried to distill my copious note taking at meetings to the essence of the take home messages. It allowed me more freedom to brainstorm and free-associate between what appeared to be separate, random findings by drawing multiple lines between them. As a result, it allowed me to come up with my own version of what one of my colleagues liked to jokingly referred to as The Theory of Everything. In turn, that allowed me to communicate my working hypothesis to my colleagues better, proving the usefulness of a more creative approach to notebook keeping.
As a final example, this summer I was approached by a curator, who was more interested in seeing my sketches than my final artworks. I would not have expected such a request. As I wrote in my second post (below), I only use my sketchbook to jot down the essence of an idea and the physical methods of executing it. But, I guess if an artist’s sketchbook truly serves as their playground rather than a laundry list, it also deserves to be seen.
After an interesting Skype call with Yana and Kate my brain is buzzing with ideas. We talked about the legal constraints of lab books for scientific purposes versus the freedom and consequent privacy of artists’ sketchbooks. This led into other questions we have discussed previously about the role of imagery in science or art and the importance of visual material for clarity, accessibility, aesthetics, engagement and persuasion. All of these aspects of visual “information” I hope to think and write about at some point. Since Yana and I decided to use this conversation as a jumping off point for our individual blogs... let’s see what happens.
As I leaf through my sketchbook, looking for insights, I keep returning to the idea of sketchbooks as the private realm of an artist. Sketchbook images and their role in the artistic process are very different from exhibited artwork that is meant to be responded to by the viewing public. Yana pointed out that labbooks are part of the public record of scientific research and in that way have legal and practical constraints and requirements. I am sure that this is also an interesting window into the differences between scientific and artistic inquiry.
My paintings are finished works that have a fairly well defined process and are meant to be displayed in a public setting such as Stillness.
My larger paintings and drawings are more purposeful than sketchbook images because they culminate from a number of ideas and often even merge different images together. Even when they are fast and expressive, like Machine below, my paintings are based on lots of experimentation in my sketchbook first.
At my last art show, a number of people asked about my sketchbook work of faces that I sometimes post on Instagram (darcyelisejohnson). I do not develop these drawings into public work because they are a spontaneous attempt to capture personal feelings and expressions as an insight into the human psyche. Because of the transience of mood and emotion, these drawings are done intensively and quickly. The images pass away as quickly as they come. They are difficult to translate onto a large ground while maintaining their freshness and purpose.
There is likely another reason that I do not exhibit or develop these images. They are deeply personal and somewhat raw. Some artists use that type of imagery to evoke empathy and curiosity about the human condition. For me, the two sides of my art reveal the two sides of me. The thoughtful, abstract thinker that keeps emotion at bay while harnessing its passion for newness and discovery. The other side reveals a troubling emotional life that I also have to control. I suffer from clinical depression that began in my teens and set my life on its trajectory. So, I am attracted to science because it requires that we recognize and set aside some of our less objective experiences and rely on the quantifiable, systematic observations and analysis. Art making allows both sides of my personal experience a voice... albeit at times, a very private voice, in my sketchbook.
This week Darcy and I spoke a lot about the reasons for needing art in our life. This question probably has different answers from the perspective of the artist and the viewer, but I in this post I will try to scratch the surface of the artist’s side.
A couple years ago, I received a comment on my website stating that “Work and chores get done, because the world needs them to be done. Art gets done because there is an internal need for it to happen.” I grew up doing a lot of arts and crafts, which did not necessarily stem from the outside, such as someone actively teaching me. I liked the process of creating something and seeing how it comes out in the end. It was a cathartic experience for me. But why is it so rewarding?
The biological reward system has evolved to increase our chances of survival in tough times. For example, the satisfaction we get from a good meal is due to the fuel it provides for our body. Animals will learn to press a lever on cue, as long as they are rewarded with a food pellet. But what about art? Why does it bring us such satisfaction? Why do some people (but not others) crave it so much? And why do some people enjoy viewing art, whereas others primarily enjoy creating it?
Expressing yourself through art provides an additional channel for interaction and communication. Literature indicates a strong correlation between mental disorders and artistic expression, such as in the case of Vincent van Gogh, who suffered from epilepsy, depression, anxiety and, according to some accounts, bipolar disorder. He used art as a method for processing his emotions.
In addition, in the case of physical brain dysfunction, “The turning to communication through art in lieu of language deficits reflects a biological survival strategy... It is adversely affected when these systems are dysfunctional, for congenital reasons (savant autism) or because of acquired brain damage (stroke, dementia, Parkinson’s), whereas inherent artistic talent and skill appear less affected.”
But in the healthy population, “Art is a symbolic communicative system practiced only by humans, and argued to have become a fully practiced behavior at a time when early human social groups grew in size and complexity, and communication through language and art promoted cohesion and survival.” There is a lot of evidence suggesting that a high percentage of artists are introverts and art may serve as an additional channel for their interaction with society. And this is where I can relate.
In our daily lives, we are constantly bombarded with face-to-face social interactions, of which not all may necessarily be pleasurable. Art provides a way to unwind from this feeling of chaos. Creating art is a meditative process and results in a feeling of “flow”, as described by Michaly Csikszentimihalyi.
Last year, I met a person who said: "You have a lot on your plate, you are an individual, a wife, a mother and a professional." As an adult with children and multiple responsibilities, I feel like art is one of the very few things I have left to feel like myself. Making art makes me feel more like an individual - it is something only for myself, where I do not depend on other people and no one depends on me.
The question, “Why do we do art” constantly rises to the surface in Yana’s and my discussions. I suppose it is because our primary work is very demanding and it take real effort to for both of us to put aside time to do our own artwork.
I rent a shared studio space with two other artists but during the school year I hardly darken the door. I have drawing space at home I can access when I have free time.
So, if art making is the last thing on the list of a busy life, why do it at all? I have had many people over the years say, “it must be so much fun being an artist!”. Not really fun; more like I am compelled to do it. I have creative ideas I want to follow, just to see where they go but art making is also the place where I can explore my own mind, check in on my individual responses to the world and to the artwork. To watch myself and the work evolve. Sometimes a piece takes on a trajectory of its own where I’m working intuitively, almost like an observer. It is difficult to get to that mental space but I never give up trying.
I have recently read a number of Eric Kandel’s books, Reductionism in Art, The Age of Insight and The Disordered Mind. In various contexts, Kandel summarizes research done using brain imaging during art making. The right hemisphere is very active during creative work. Many scientific studies indicate that the left hemisphere of the brain (where we think in a logical sequential way and where our language centres are), inhibits the creative right hemisphere where we tend to connect knowledge and experience into a gestalt or new picture of the “world”. Sudden bursts of painting and drawing can happen in people who have left hemisphere damage. The theory is that part of the left hemisphere’s function is to inhibit or dampen down the right hemisphere, presumably to keep us from winging off into “insanity” where we may connect too much and analyze too little.
The other interesting side to this research is that even though there are many examples of mentally damaged or unstable people making groundbreaking art (Kay Redfield Jamison, Touched by Fire), it is not necessary for an artist to be verging on insanity to be creative. We can train ourselves to diminish the inhibition of the left hemisphere by practicing. Kandel, in The Disordered Mind gives the example of Jazz musicians. Their right hemispheres are highly active during improvisation but it takes years of training for most people to achieve this.
So, other than insatiable curiosity, I do art to turn off the incessant chatter of my left hemisphere and just be responsive in the moment. It has taken a lifetime of practice. Yana and I discussed this as “flow”. Athletes use it, repetitive lab work requires it, as well as many other activities where focused awareness of the present is necessary and we must shut off the planning and ruminating that our left hemisphere bullies us into. For me, painting and drawing feel very insightful, absorbing and restful in a world where the dialogue is always on high volume.