#SfN14: Art of Neuroscience, with Megan McGlynn


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. My interviews with Joni Seidenstein (@artcollisions) and Kathleen Childress are here and here.


It's tough to walk by the Art of Neuroscience exhibit without pausing in awe at Megan's 3D sculpture of a pyramidal neuron, based on Cajal's original artwork. "It's perhaps one of my more intuitive pieces," she explained to me, "usually I like to explore abstract interpretations of the brain and mind."

That's absolutely true – at first glance, most of her artwork doesn't strike the viewer as neuroscience-related. It's only when you look deeper, studying each piece in detail, can you begin to appreciate the complexity and structure buried within. Megan explores the parallel between architectural artwork and the functional organization of the mind; as she previously explained to Noah Hutton at the Beautiful Brain, "architecture is a powerful way to visualize neuroscience concepts because it’s one of the most ancient of ways that humans organized themselves and their thoughts. "

Megan gets her inspiration from a variety of sources. Take the neuroanatomy chess set, with pieces hand-carved from crystalline alabaster. "My father asked me to make a chess set, and I thought it would be really cool to use various brain structures for chess pieces and explore how they interact with each other – much like how different brain areas communicate." The pieces are highly abstracted representations of the brain, she pointed out, "but strange or unclear artwork is much more interesting to create and to view." Sometimes her inspiration comes from the materials themselves –often wood or metal. The beauty of wood is that you can see how it experienced its growth by looking at its unique characteristics, she explained to Essinova, "this visible memory is really important to me in my work." While working with the materials, Kathleen sometimes tries out new techniques, which has previously led to completely unexpected results that she later resonated with scientific concepts. Her perspective of neuroscience concepts and the human mind are truly unique and imaginative.

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 am an artist from Philadelphia, PA. My work is inspired by neuroscience, architecture, and is hand crafted from raw materials. I also love to cook.

How did you begin designing neuroscience-themed sculptures, and what does working in 3D add to your artistic interpretation of the brain ?

My father built timber frame houses during my childhood and I was always drawn to the blue prints. Throughout my art education I focused on the underlying structure of objects and scenes, to investigate the boundaries of information via 2D line work. Once I began woodworking, I fell completely in love with transferring that line work into the 3rd dimension. My goal is to develop a combination of diagram, building, and biological form, so it felt right to explore structures of the brain in a similar way.

Creating in 3D opens up a lot of opportunities, but it is filled with challenges. Because so much of neuroscience is on the microscopic scale and difficult to visualize, I enjoy taking liberties in creating abstract forms.

How do you balance scientific accuracy and artistic freedom?

One of the wonderful things about art is that accuracy is often a non-issue, at least for the type of work that I do. My work isn’t an educational tool, it’s a playful exploration of concepts and imagery.

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

For a long time my drawings have been focused on cityscapes through the lens of memory recollection – fragmented and inventive – as well as brain scan mash ups. My sculptures are all very different, some are inspired by neuroanatomy, some by neural processes and specific diagrams, others are based on concepts of evolutionary psychology or other fields. In other words, it’s all over the place.

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

Despite the obvious differences, I think art and science are very similar. To come up with a unique piece of art relies totally on ingenuity, experimentation and taking risks. A quick look through history shows those traits are also essential for making strides in the sciences. Science is important to my work not only for the concepts and imagery, but for inspiring processes and reminding me what the mind is capable of.

Where can I find more of your work?

My home page.


Thanks Megan for taking the time to talk to me. Her work is best viewed in person, so head over to the the L Street Bridge after 10am for a look and a chat with the artist.

Image credit: Megan McGlynn

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