Friday, September 30, 2016

Cumulative Effect: Cajal Inventory

          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-three 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.