Saturday, March 18, 2017

Cajal Inventory Paintings: Head, Heart and Spine

I am tremendously honored, humbled, and excited to have been awarded a Fulbright Senior Research Fellowship to the Cajal Institute in Spain. I am looking forward to continuing my project and conducting research on Santiago Ramón y Cajal in Madrid! Many thanks to "all" who have encouraged my efforts (especially at the Cajal Institute!) and those who wrote letters of support:  Juan De Carlos, Fernando De Castro, Peter Chametzky, Jeff Diamond, Jill Downen, and Laura Kissel.

On September 30, 2016, I posted on this blog my "Cajal Inventory" drawings, installed as one work comprised of forty five drawings.  Those drawings have been used as the basis for a group of paintings, also identified as "Cajal Inventory."  Completed works from the "Cajal Inventory" paintings can be found in this post.  The works have been identified as "inventories" because within them I have compiled and fused imagery and narratives from his personal life, creative works, and scientific drawings.  They are also identified as "inventories" as they represent my interpretation and impressions of the content of Ramón y Cajal's life and research.  Images and ideas are layered in a surreal context which displaces linear time in favor of immersing one in the imagination inspired and conjured by Ramón y Cajal.

detail:  Silveria:  Head, Heart and Spine, acrylic on canvas, 2017

The University of South Carolina has one of the most beautiful campuses in the United States, so each spring and fall I have my students paint and draw on the Gibbes Green.  Last spring while my students were working, I found on the campus trail some of the most exquisitely beautiful feathers in the light dark complementary contrast of yellow and purple - a pure color of yellow and a shade of purple.  I am not sure what exactly happened to the poor bird, but judging from the condition of a couple of the feathers, it would seem as though the fowl had met a woeful, violent end facilitated by a predator.  The feathers were too beautiful to leave, so I collected them and replicated Mother Nature's remarkable craft of complementary contrast for the base color of my "Cajal Inventory" paintings.

detail:  Wren and Cerebellum, acrylic on canvas, 2017

Above, from left to right:  1) Complementary contrast feathers found on USC campus,  2) "Cajal Inventory" painting preliminary, and 3) "Cajal Inventory" color contrast preliminary in pure form
detail:  Silveria in Sanguine, 2017

detail:  Portrait of Cajal:  Conquest in Solitude, acrylic on oval canvas, 2017

Photo of Dawn Hunter's studio, March 17, 2017

Portrait of Cajal:  Conquest in Solitude, acrylic on oval canvas, 2017

"Cajal Inventory" preliminary studies:  Portrait of Cajal:  Conquest in Solitude, acrylic on oval canvas, 2017

Pyramidal Neuron Roots, acrylic on round canvas, 2017

"Cajal Inventory" preliminary studies:  Pyramidal Neuron Roots, acrylic on round canvas, 2017

Pyramidal Neuron Roots:  Using Cajal's oil painting "Shipwreck" as a starting point, Pyramidal Neuron Roots explores his fondness for romanticism, his infatuation with nature, and his passion for his research.

Wren and Cerebellum, acrylic on canvas, 2017

"Cajal Inventory" preliminary studies:  Wren and Cerebellum, 2017

Wren and Cerebellum:  The wren is an active bird:  vibrant, alert, and efficient.  A natural choice of image to juxtapose with the cerebellum, the little brain that, too, is vibrant, alert and efficient.  Cajal's untangling and rendering of the human cerebellum was one of his finest and most important achievements as a histologist.  I have discarded the contemporary medical reference of the latex surgical glove found on the hand in the preliminary drawing in favor of the natural hand in the painting.  The physicality of the painting inspired a reference of "actual" touch.

detail:  Silveria:  Head, Heart and Spine, 2017

"Cajal Inventory" preliminary studies:  Silveria:  Head, Heart and Spine, 2017

Silveria:  Head, Heart and Spine, acrylic on oil canvas, 2017

Head, Heart and Spine:  Cajal took many, many photos of his wife Silveria, however, he would lament in his writings that he was never able to truly capture her beauty.  In this work I am trying to highlight her natural beauty and to present her, too, as an idea juxtaposed in his imagination with the histology imagery of his work.   

"Cajal Inventory" preliminary studies:   Silveria in Sanguine, 2017

 Silveria in Sanguine, acrylic on oval canvas, 2017

Silveria in Sanguine:  Silvera is the hopeful and uplifting yellow -- sanguine, to the intense depths of Santiago's introspection that held company with his "butterflies."  Ramón y Cajal’s marriage to Silveria Fañanás García is an example of a highly functional complementary pairing.  Ramón y Cajal in choosing a mate selected a woman whose character attributes were what he perceived to be a “perfect” complement to his. In doing so, he believed that their union would be a great accomplishment or matrimonial disaster.  He said publicly many times that he would not be Ramón y Cajal if it were not for his wife and he credits her greatly with making his work and the depth of his research possible.  She incited his maximum vividness.  

"Like the enotmologist in search of colorful butterflies, my attention has chased in the gardens of the grey matter cells with delicate and elegant shapes, the mysterious butterflies of the soul, whose beating of wings may one day reveal to us the secrets of the mind." 

- Recollections of My Life, Santiago Ramón y Cajal

All of the "Cajal Inventory" preliminary studies have been created through a combination of researching Ramón y Cajal's biographies, photographs and observational drawing.  The drawings that reference his scientific drawings have been created through a direct observation of his actual scientific drawings on display at the National Institute of Health, Bethesda, MD and the Berkeley Art Museum, Berkeley, CA.

Dawn Hunter, Cajal Inventory paintings installation, 2017

Friday, September 30, 2016

Cumulative Effect: Cajal Inventory Drawings

          My artistic practice and aesthetic interests have been profoundly influenced by my work as a medical illustrator for the new edition of Human Neuroanatomy, to be published by Wiley-Blackwell Publishing in 2017, by Dr. James R. Augustine, University of South Carolina School of Medicine.  While creating illustrations for this textbook, I researched the history of brain anatomy illustration and was particularly struck and inspired by the drawings of Ramón y Cajal, because they possess artistic merit and a particular type of observation.

          I am creating a series of drawings and paintings titled Aesthetic Instincts: the Intersection of Art and Science in the life of Santiago Ramón y Cajal.  This is a comprehensive biographical creative project that, through visual art, examines and represents the life of Santiago Ramón y Cajal (May 1, 1852 – October 17, 1934).  Ramón y Cajal was a Spanish scientist and the first person to demonstrate that the nervous system was made up of individual units (neurons) that were independent of one another but linked together at points of functional contact called synapses​.  Ramón y Cajal illustrated the results of his studies with elegant drawings of neurons that he proposed work independently or collectively, and that each individual unit can participate simultaneously in individual or multiple neuron functions.  Ramón y Cajal was a 1906 Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine that was awarded jointly to another neuroscientist, Camillo Golgi "in recognition of their work on the structure of the nervous system,” however, their research was mutually exclusive and embraced opposing theses.  Santiago Ramón y Cajal is considered by many to be the father of modern neuroscience.  

          Featured in this post are works from my Cajal Inventory.  The forty-five drawings are 11" x 14" each and created through a combination of the following materials:  graphite, ink, pen, marker and acrylic.  The drawings are biographical of Ramón y Cajal, as well as of my creative process within this project, i.e. some works are my notes from Dr. Augustine's Fundamentals of Neuroscience course that evolved into completed drawings. The biographical portraits of Ramón y Cajal are comprised of Ramón y Cajal, his wife Silvera and their children. 

          I view my new drawings and paintings as educational tools that address art, history and neuroscience.   After I read his autobiography, Recollections of My Life a part of me that felt like some key aspects of Ramón y Cajal (his humor, and how he imagined himself – particularly in his youth) were absent from the mainstream discourse patterns about him. My artwork highlights his personality traits and his private value system essential to his unique scientific insight that led to his great discovery: that the nervous system is comprised of individual, independent biological units, i.e. neurons.  The images here are a fusion of surreal and hyper-real portraits, domestic scenes, and recreations of Ramón y Cajal scientific drawings.  I have reconstructed his scientific drawings by studying his actual work on display at the National Institute of Health, Bethesda, MD.  I have also re-created some of his lost childhood drawings, based on the description in his biography.

          When I recreate his scientific drawings, I draw the whole situation of each drawing.  Shadows cast from the drawings are included as are the boundaries created by the mats.  I do this because his drawings were constructed with unconventional formats.  Not only does this approach make spending long hours researching and drawing his works more creatively interesting, but more importantly, it serves to emphasize the content and context of his research.  

          I have been fascinated with the combination of complements in my visual art. I have applied this to the form (color selection and composition) and the content (opposing personalities) in my Cajal Inventory.  In color theory, it is said that complements incite maximum vividness or annihilate each other.

          Ramón y Cajal’s marriage to Silveria Fañanás García is an example of a highly functional complementary pairing.  Ramón y Cajal in choosing a mate selected a woman whose character attributes were what he perceived to be a “perfect” complement to his. In doing so, he believed that their union would be a great accomplishment or matrimonial disaster.  He said publicly many times that he would not be Ramón y Cajal if it were not for his wife and he credits her greatly with making his work and the depth of his research possible.  She incited his maximum vividness.

          This work celebrates Ramón y Cajal and his birthday (May Day).  I am symbolically mirroring Ramón y Cajal’s application of complementary contrast in his marital union. Therefore I elected to use (as defined by Johannes Itten) a harmonious hexad comprised of three complementary pairs of hue from the color wheel: blue-violet and yellow-orange, red and green, and yellow-green and red-violet.  Integrated within the pageantry of images are Ramón y Cajal’s neural drawings, May Day flowers and portraits of Ramón y Cajal; his wife, Silveria; and their children. 

          A selection of seven works from an earlier phase of this series are currently on view along side Ramón y Cajal's scientific drawings at the John Porter Neuroscience Research Center of the NIH.  Learn more about that exhibition here:  
National Institute of Health Santiago Ramón y Cajal exhibition and symposium.