#SfN14: Art of Neuroscience, with Michele Banks


I still remember the sense of awe that I felt the first time I looked at a neuron under a microscope.

Granted, it really wasn't a pretty neuron: it had been assaulted with kainic acid, a harsh chemical isolated from seaweed that's commonly used to induce seizures in animals. It was also poorly stained - a reflection of my terrible technique -and sickly looking, but none of that deterred away from its inherent, delicate beauty: the wispy dendrites, extending far and wide; the protruding spines, mushroom-shaped entities on which synapses form; the blazing soma, harboring the nucleus and the code of life. I was staring at a computation unit that somehow brings us ideas, thoughts, memories, feelings of wonder and awe. It was one of the most gorgeous things I've ever seen.

Neuroscientists aren't the only ones enthralled by the brain. Many artists, including those featured in this year's Art of Neuroscience exhibit at #SfN14, find themselves gravitating towards neuroscience for artistic inspiration. Although their artwork differs in style – micro-etchings, jewellery, quilts, paintings and sculptures  – these unique pieces all manage to capture and enhance the wonders of the brain. Simply put, they're absolutely stunning. They're also great conversation starters: after all, who can resist asking about the stories behind these works? Through art, we may be able to reach out to people who otherwise wouldn't have had the chance or interest to get to know the brain.

How did these artists cross the art-science divide and fall in love with neuroscience? I posed the question to this year's Art of Neuroscience participants in a series of short interviews, which I'll be posting throughout the next few days. If you haven't checked out the exhibit yet, go to the L Street Bridge between 10am to 4pm from now until Wednesday. Trust me, you'll feel inspired by the beauty of neuroscience all over again.

Painting collage: each piece is by Michele Banks.

First up is Michele Banks, aka @artologica. Michele is a painter who mainly works with neuroscience and microbiology-related themes. She also writes about the intersection of art and science at The Finch and Pea. Note that the following has been slightly edited for clarity.

Tell us a little about yourself.

My education is in neither art nor science (I have a Political Science degree), so it's been kind of a twisty path to becoming a person who paints neurons and bacteria. The basic stuff: I live in DC, I tweet way too much and I like to make lolcats.

How did you get into your craft, in particular painting about brain-related things?

I started painting about fifteen years ago, mainly doing abstract watercolors.  Pretty early in my career, I met some scientists who spotted things in my paintings that they told me looked like organisms under a microscope. I was intrigued and I started looking at images of cells and I just kind of got hooked. It wasn't only that they were beautiful and cool, but the idea that there's this whole hidden world inside our bodies, in the air and water, and living on every surface - that just amazed and inspired me, and it still does.

How do you balance scientific accuracy and artistic freedom?

I'm not an illustrator, so I don't try all that hard for scientific accuracy. I try to make things recognizable, but I don't really worry about them being precise. And some are totally fanciful, like my coffee-stain brains, although a guy once asked me whether those were based on real scans, and I think he was serious!

On a related note, the brain is a flesh-colored goop brought alive by your vibrant art pieces. How do you choose your color scheme and ways of abstraction to depict the brain?

Well, the brain *was* [an] oatmeally goop until scientists figured out how to use fluorescent proteins. I've definitely been inspired by the "Brainbows" work of Lichtman and Sanes, who brought bright color to microscopic images of the brain.

I read a lot of articles about science, and great science writing always conjures up images and metaphors for what's going on in our bodies, our brains, and the world around us. And then once I get a visual idea, I often follow it through a whole series of paintings or collages.

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

A lot of my work explores ways that things and people are connected - the fact that people are all pretty much the same on a cellular level. My "Portrait of a Human" painting, for example. That's you, or me, or anyone. All the surface differences that seem so important are pretty tiny in comparison to what we all have in common. Also the repetition of patterns in biology - I often use roots and branches interchangeably with neural connections. Things are shaped similarly because they grow and develop the same way.

I've worked with a pretty wide range of scientific themes. I've done a lot of paintings on the microbiome, and now I need to think about how to incorporate that work with ideas from recent resarch on how microbes affect the brain.

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

I'm not sure there's such a divide. Both groups are trying to understand things about the world in their different ways. I'm constantly awed by the discoveries scientists are making and I never run out of things to paint. As the technology for scientific imaging improves, it keeps providing me with more and more beautiful images to work with.

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

How much it can do, and how little we know about it. I'm also fascinated by the *ways* that scientists are trying to figure out the brain. I love reading about the design of experiments.

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

Sorry, that's too hard. It's like choosing your favorite child.

Where can I find more of your work?

Thanks for asking! [Etsy store] and while we're all gathered for SfN 2014, you can find me and six other artists on the L Street Bridge between the two buildings of the Convention Center from November 15-19. I'll also be showing some work at the NIH Clinical Center from January-March 2015.

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

I write a post every week on The Art of Science at The Finch and Pea, a group blog that covers science and culture. (The Art of Science posts are all linked here also). There's just so much interesting work going on in the art-science field. I want scientists to know that I'd love to hear their ideas for art! I may not use all of them, but many of my pieces have been based on ideas from conversations on science twitter or blogs.

Thanks Michele for taking the time to talk to me, and I encourage everyone to drop by and check out her work. Next up is Joni Seidenstein, aka @artcollisions.

Image credit: Michele Bank

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