#SfN14: Art of Neuroscience, with Kathleen Childress

This is part of a series of interviews with artists participating in #SfN14's Art of Neuroscience exhibit. For my introductory post with Michele Banks (@artologica) see here, and my interview with Joni Seidenstein (@artcollisions), here.

Kathleen's hand-crafted jewellery is minimalistic, sophisticated and brimming with stories.

Each piece embodies a vision, an idea that the wearer wants to express, she explained to me. It's about distilling the inner motivations of the wearer – her passions and desires – and capturing them with metals and gemstones. It was in fact this design principle – the need for intimacy and personalized expression – that led her into the world of neuroscience: while fashioning a custom jewellery piece for her neuroscientist sister, Kathleen wanted to mould silver into something worth loving. Due to her sister's passion for dopaminergic neurons, she decided to go with that. She dived headfirst into the world of neurons and synapses and never looked back. "It's my third year now doing this collection, and I hope to never stop."

Kathleen works deftly with silver, gold and precious gems, crafting each individual component together into pieces with stunning colour combinations. As a certified Graduate Gemologist, Kathleen knows her stuff: "Rubies and sapphires are among my favourites gems to work with. Rubies especially 'pop' when embedded in blacked silver." She pointed to a dangling pendent on display,  "Colours are a huge factor that I think about when sketching out my designs."

But Kathleen isn't in it alone. She gets inspiration from her sister, and collaborates with an expert silversmith to bring her sketches to life. None of these works would've been realized without Jasper Kegge, a masterful Dutch goldsmith with over 30 years of experience. It's a stimulating and educational relationship, Kathleen said. For most people it's hard to work with something and not ask about it, she said, "Jasper got the whole neuroscience low-down – actually, he's now so familiar with neuronal structure that I can say, 'make that apical dendrite curl a bit more' and he'll understand."

Jasper isn't the only one intrigued by the neuron-themed jewelry. "I often have people come up to me and ask what this is," she said of a bold, sparkling silver neuron pendent, "they think it's a squid or something. And then I explain what a neuron is, what a synapse is..." With her collection of earrings depicting synaptic transmission, she can even get into how neurotransmitters activate post-synaptic neurons to pass on information. "It's a real learning experience for me, and hopefully for others as well."

Is there any potential in using art to whet people's appetite for neuroscience? Kathleen thinks so. "Art is just so intuitive and approachable!" It's not meant to be an educational device, she conceded, but hopefully it will get people curious about the brain.

You can find her work on the L Street Bridge between 10am to 4pm until Wednesday. Note that the following interview has been slightly edited for clarity.

Tell us a little about yourself.

I've always loved art and created art since I was three years old. I'm also a writer and a bit of a poet, having written a poetry thesis for an English and creative writing master's degree. I decided to pursue a passion for art, fine jewelry design, and gemstones while finishing up a full corporate career as a communication consultant.

How did you start your Synapse collection of neuroscience-themed jewellery ?

This one's easy: when I began designing jewelry, I so loved telling a story or expressing personal meaning in the pieces –that was the inspiration for me. So when my neuroscientist sister (!) asked me to design something individual for her, and knowing her passion for neurons, especially dopamine neurons, I did some research on them to understand their "essence." Then I quickly sketched a wide cuff with a  stylized neuron wrapping around it. Working with an expert silversmith/goldsmith, we brought the silver cuff to life, and once she wore it, neuroscience colleagues everywhere were so excited by the designs, we just kept creating new ways to convey the beauty of neurons.

Compared to paintings and textiles, your work is different in that it's three dimensional – how does having an extra dimension to work with contribute to your artistic interpretation and depiction of the brain?

Because the brain and its structures are three dimensional, working in 3D expresses the organic and textural nature of its amazing forms – and because neurons are not normally visible to the eye, mysterious and naturally beautiful, 3D interpretations help everyone understand and celebrate them, far beyond the arena of neuroscience.

How do you balance scientific accuracy and artistic freedom?

Honestly, the goal is to capture an essence, or spirit, of neurons and brain structures and express their infinite beauty in a way that appeals straight to the amygdala, if you will.

Are there specific (neuro)scientific themes that you explore in your art work? If so, what are they?

I've explored the synaptic transmission process in different ways – abstract expressions of pre-synaptic neurochemicals crossing the synaptic gap – and then the binding at the post-synaptic terminal and turning into electric signal, the action potential.

There often seems to be a divide between the arts and the sciences - how does science contribute to your artistic inspiration and/or creativity?

Oh my gosh, science is infinitely inspiring...and the dynamic beautiful shapes and structures in the brain lend themselves to organic and sculptural jewelry design....and the shapes scale up or down with integrity.

As an artist, what fascinates you most about the brain?

That it's the most complex computing system in existence, that it makes us who we are yet how it all comes together to do this is still a largely unexplored terrain. It's got chemistry, intuitively appealing forms, mystery, and electricity....all the
components of great art.

What's your favourite piece of work so far, and can you tell us more about it?

Picking a favorite is tough because I have a bit of love for all the designs. I'd probably go to the original "Gift of Nature" neuron bangle that I designed for my neuroscientist sister; it's a wide hammered silver pure silver bangle with a stylized dopamine neuron...it denotes a science "wonder woman" power cuff! And it sparked the entire journey into neuroscience-inspired jewelry that brings me to SfN!

Where can I find more of your work?

You can view designs at my home page and see me at SfN and at the College on Problems of Drug Dependence (CPDD) annual conference.

Is there anything else that you'd like to talk about relating to art of neuroscience?

Just that the experience collaborating with my sister in the area that she's passionate about and interacting with a whole new world of people making an impact through the study of microscopic brain structures has been immensely enjoyable, expanded my universe of understanding, and hopefully brought even more beauty into the amazing art of neuroscience!


Thanks Kathleen for taking the time to talk to me! I highly encourage you to drop by tomorrow (Wednesday) and see her pieces for yourself. She's also lovely to talk to – her passion for her craft is incredibly inspiring.

 Image credit: Kathleen Childress

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