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ARTS LAB

Etching the Neural Landscape

A neuroscientist-artist draws inspiration from the materials and techniques of Asian scroll painting to visualize the complex wiring of the brain.

Greg Dunn

Click to Enlarge ImageBoth art and science arise from our root desires to describe our experience of reality. From this starting point, the artistic and scientific paths diverge. Science describes external reality, about which we share a consensus. Art captures our internal, subjective realities. But the two sides do not always stand apart. My own work can best be described as science/art, not simply because I paint that which scientists study but because I draw evenly from artistic and scientific approaches to capture the essence of the neurons that carry sensations and produce thought.

My artistic career began during my tenure as a graduate student in neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania. As I came to learn, molecular research can be an existential exercise in that you must rely on machines and chemical reagents to “see” your experiments. Painting provided me a welcome respite from lab frustrations because it gave me a sense of control. When painting, I can experiment and immediately see the result, judge it against my intentions, and iterate as necessary. I can convey my thoughts to the world without having to worry about grants, contaminated compounds, the politics of publishing, or an unexpected flood in the mouse room threatening to wash away my study subjects.

My graduate school days were filled with stunning microscopic imagery. Neurons, in particular, resonated with me. With their chaotic, unpredictable branching patterns, neurons have much in common aesthetically with traditional subjects of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean ink painting, such as trees and branches. Viewed as landscapes, neuronal vistas would fit easily within an Asian context. I began to experiment with merging the two.




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