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.
Several years ago, as I was working on developing my scientific career, I was presented with the Myers-Briggs test. Myers-Briggs test is a widely accepted assessment of one’s own personality. It is meant to provide information to begin understanding your own qualities. This includes identifying your strengths and weaknesses and finding ways to take the best advantage of applying them in our daily and professional life. While I completely agreed with 3 out of 4 characteristics, one came as a surprise. I was told that I rely more on intuition than on my senses and understanding. As a scientist, I would have thought the opposite - that I process information primarily through observations, which in turn inform my decisions. When I work on my art, there is an internal battle of these two sides.
This week, Darcy and I began discussing what drives our work. I feel like no matter how deep I get into the creative process, my scientist hat never comes off. I do my best to stay true to the scientific form and it takes a lot of will power for me to venture into something a bit more abstract.
In my sketch notebook, I first come up with a “protocol” for the project. This consists of a very general sketch that just captures the main idea; followed by several mini-sketches, in which I brainstorm the way to convert it into a 3D structure. How can I thread the wire to make the structure stable? It is almost akin to a quick blueprint.
Over the last several months, I have listened to a number of podcasts, where artists talk about their process. In a lot of interviews, artists talk about putting down the key aspects of an idea and then letting the art guide the process. They like to see where it takes them if they let go of all reservations. Sometimes mistakes can lead to the greatest discoveries (this applies to both art and science).
However, if a painter dislikes something about their work, they can cover it up and restart a section, even if it means temporarily losing an element that worked well. Unfortunately, beadwork is not as forgiving as canvas and paint. This potentially means that there is a much lower chance of “happy mistakes” if you had a certain pattern in mind.
Nevertheless, in a lot of my work I tend to “think on the fly” and create new components based on what would fit well with the existing composition. This was especially true when I was working on “Sunrise”. In a more recent piece, I used a beading technique that is even more difficult to undo. It took a great deal of self-control to let the work flow freely and allow for a certain element of biological stochasticity, rather than striving for geometrical symmetry.
Given Darcy’s interest in the theme of palimpsest, I would love to explore the possibility of adding more (free-formed) layers to my work. Despite being 3D, all of my works have been made as a “single layer” and creating beadwork in several tiers could provide for more richness and complexity. We are beginning to explore how I could create more dimensions in my work by adding network patterns that Darcy would generate.
This past week, Yana and I have talked about the process of planning and making art. At what points in the process are we consciously problem solving as we go and when does the imagemaking become responsive, immediate and subconscious. Many visual artists use sketchbooks to plan larger more finished pieces but I often do the opposite by drawing spontaneously in my sketchbook to inform a larger more deterministic finished artwork. I think the interesting question is how does this image development process look for each of us. What are the ways in which we create images; when are they analytical and when, intuitive?
I use my sketchbooks to play. I draw randomly and responsively, I would say intuitively. I work into images I have started months or even years ago. I explore and experiment constantly.
Many of my sketchbook images are abstract drawings. I am powerfully drawn to abstract images because I don’t want to be distracted by a recognizable image. Evenso, My abstract sketchbook drawings are often evocative of the natural world and its laws which, makes me question whether there is ever any abstract images that do not carry in them our more concrete experiences of the world whether we are making or viewing art. See the “beholder’s share” by Ernst Gombrich, The Story of Art, 1950
One way I “study” my intuitive drawings for their content, insights and possibilities is digitally. The following series started with a photographed sketchbook drawing which I worked up into a series using Photoshop. The series is called Macromolecule because that is what I was thinking about as I rendered this series. When I drew it originally in my sketchbook, no such evaluation was in my mind; it was an open ended drawing with many possible interpretations.
To bring this process into the collaborative work that Yana and I are doing, she suggested that I render some photos of her neurobead work. This was a very satisfying way for me to explore her imagery. I was working with Gombrich’s idea of the beholder’s share. Briefly the beholder's share is the life and art experiences we bring with us whenever we view a piece of art. Art pushes us to see the world in a new way but that view must also contain our previous experience of art . Our responses to art must be primarily intuitive because they are informed by the complex and layered memories all of which cannot be conscious in any given moment. Below are several digital renderings I did of the orginal photo Yana sent me.
I am very honored and excited to join the SciArt Center Residency. When I was applying to the program, I was unsure which side would be a better fit for me. I am “a scientist by day and an artist by night.” While I enjoy the rigorous process of scientific research, art serves as my creative outlet. I grew up doing all sorts of artwork, which in retrospect I could call mixed media. It was my favorite way to spend my free time.
At the same time, I was getting very interested in biology and neuroscience in particular, which led me to choosing it as my major in college. I have always thought of the brain as the most fascinating part of our bodies. After a short period of considering to go to medical school, I decided that it wasn't for me and that "I would rather be dealing with test tubes than with patients"; which at the time seemed to closely resemble the solitary activity of creating art.
I went to graduate school and chose a project that evolved from studying neuronal differentiation and maturation to central nervous regeneration after injury. My research involved a lot of fluorescence microscopy, which really opened up my eyes to the literal beauty of science and the nervous system in particular. In the recent years, I decided to merge my two passions and began recreating images of cells, by modifying french beading techniques that are typically used for creating beaded flowers.
Given that I have mainly practiced art as a side hobby, I would love to use this residency as an opportunity to learn about the more extensive process that professional artists go through. I want to find out how artists come up with their ideas and if/how they systematize their creative process. How much is that process led by logic vs. intuition? I am particularly intrigued by finding out the reasons why an artist would choose a scientific subject for their work. After attending talks and exhibits by SciArt Center and LASER Talks, and hearing how art and science can inform each other, I would like to see firsthand what art can contribute to science beyond depicting and communicating the findings.
Over the last few years, there has been a large movement in making science more accessible to the public. From educational initiatives like organizing publicly accessible scientific laboratories (i.e. Genspace), to laughable actions such as injecting oneself with GFP or CRISPR, science is becoming more mainstream. However, there is a fine line between breaking down the image of a crazy scientist and providing information that may be a bit difficult to understand and apply. And misunderstanding can lead to poor judgments and opinions. One example of this was the entertaining story of a shrimp on a treadmill, where scientists were mistakenly accused of wasting the taxpayers’ dollars.
Therefore, science may need to be presented in bite-size pieces and in a way that would be both interesting and visually appealing to the general audience. Therefore, I would like to explore how art can make scientific topics interesting and understandable to the public.
I am so excited to begin this residency. It feels so right!! Thank you to the SciArt Center for this opportunity. Yana and I have already had interesting exchanges and I suspect it will be difficult to narrow the possible collaborations to only several topics. We have talked about the artistic representation of neuronal activity, why art is pleasurable to look at, what is the drive to make art, systems biology and networks… and more.
First, I should introduce myself and my work...just to get that out of the way...
Years ago, in the 1980s as I studied neurobiology and cognitive science at university, there was very little conversation about the way the arts and sciences intersect and inform each other. I was an anomaly because I was passionate about them both. Even though I was expected to choose one or the other, I never did. I understood the connections between science and art in terms of the more obvious qualities they both encourage; curiosity, focus, drive, creativity, problem solving and fascination with the material world. However, the real connection for me is that I see them as almost the same thing. The desire to observe, experiment and analyse phenomena in order to understand the world around me and myself. So, I’m greedy and wanted it all. Science appeals to my systematic evaluation of experience in order to bring the picture of nature more fully into focus. Art is the gestalt expression of my understanding of the world in the moment. I love how art and science both make room for newness and both have different modes of communicating their ever-evolving body of knowledge. They nurture the changing face of understanding. There is room to learn, change, move and breathe within scientific and artistic work.
I have been teaching Science, Psychology and Visual Art for 20 years, mainly to senior high school students. I have been a working artist most of my adult life and produce mainly abstract paintings and drawings. My imagery is about the biology, thought, memory and cognition and also broader scientific models such as motion, gravity and dark matter. I move between making images in several ways. At times I proceed in a process of predetermined steps governed by rules in order to observe specific outcomes. Other times, I draw and paint expressively and unselfconsciously and that is also very informative. Below is a piece that began as expressive drawing and then was carefully rendered.
Another thought… Finally, scientific experimentation and making art have another interesting parallel in that “failure” matters as much as success. When the results do not work out as expected, it requires honest evaluation about why and then informs the next step. This of course, applies to most of life but I believe, the way we educate has failed to emphasize this until very recently.