Friday, May 1, 2020

A Walk with Cajal among his Canopy of Trees

¡Feliz cumpleaños, Cajal!  (1 de mayo de 1852)  Hoy tomemos el tiempo para disfrutar de los placeres simples del sol, el aire fresco y los árboles. Y a todos, espero que tengan buena salud y seguridad durante este tiempo inusual.

Dawn Hunter, Cajal editing a student's thesis, La Residencia de Estudiantes, marker, pen and ink on paper, 11"x 14"

The writing below has been revised and updated to mirror the content of this topic on my website.

For anyone who is a Cajalian, it is a personal journey. Cajal, this historical and monumental figure in neuroscience, can reach out and expose his humanity through his work, writings, and drawings in a simple, profound, and relatable manner. He accomplishes this by describing his painful childhood experiences, his self-deprecating humor regarding his ego, and the generosity he expressed to his students. When he is the most vulnerable is through his drawings. Despite the scientific intention – his beating heart, personal vulnerability, and passion of mind are communicated through his drawings' line quality. This ideographic expression is why so many of us recognize and perceive his drawings as art, and this quality is why his work continues to be discussed, emulated, and admired.

Cajal's first-person narrative in his biography, Recuerdos de mi Vida, makes one feel as though he is confiding exclusively in them over coffee at a cafe. He is transformed from the storyteller into the best friend of the favorite pupil. Through his written words from the encapsulated past, he springs alive into the present, becoming a privy partner in creative, intellectual, or objective quests. With humility and wisdom, like Siddhartha before him, he inspires the highest ideals of human capability in artistic expression and scientific research..

Some descendants of his disciples and family are fortunate individuals because they know him the best in many ways. Not as an ideal historical figure, but through those who were closest to Cajal. Their family and friends' real-life experiences interacting with him. Including stories that have been passed down through generations plus real "treasures," cherished, personal mementos from Cajal.

It was distressing when I arrived in Madrid at the Instituto Cajal, to conduct my Fulbright research, to learn the Cajal family home in Atocha was being remodeled into condominiums. Cajal had a direct hand in the house's design and final construction, thus the renovation felt like a great loss of historical significance. Seeking comfort, I conceived of a project which entailed retracing Cajal's afternoon walks in Retiro Park, Atocha, and at La Residencia de Estudiantes. On the weekends, with my daughter in tow, we would sit at the entrance of the Cajal home and draw the cityscape from that vantage point. My goal, to find sites and trees at places that were in existence when Cajal was alive and immerse myself. Through viewing the environments that are layered with the past intertwining with present as much as possible I sought to see through his perspective some of his day-to-day routine, thus creating my own momentos of Cajal.

― Dawn Hunter, March 2021

Dawn Hunter, Velazquez Paseo del Prado, pen, ink and acrylic on paper, 11" x 14"

Dawn Hunter, Monumento a Ramón y Cajal, Retiro, marker, pen and ink on paper, 11" x 14"

Dawn Hunter, Sunday Morning Meditation in Atocha, marker, pen and ink on paper, 11" x 14"

Dawn Hunter, Anthropology Museum, Atocha, marker, pen and ink on paper, 11" x 14"

Dawn Hunter, Retiro Park Evening Walk, pen, ink and acrylic on paper, 11" x 14"

Dawn Hunter, Retiro Park Evening Walk, II, pen, ink and acrylic on paper, 11" x 14"

Dawn Hunter, View from the Front door of the Cajal Home, Madrid, pen, ink and acrylic on paper, 11" x 14"

Dawn Hunter, Drawing of the trees across from the Cajal home in Madrid, marker and pen on paper, 11" x 14"

Dawn Hunter, Drawing of Retiro park near the Cajal home in Madrid, Spain, marker and pen on paper, 11" x 14"

Dawn Hunter, Re-creation of Cajal's school photo badge and a "selfie" he took after returning to Spain from a tour as a military doctor in Cuba.  The plant foliage was drawn from the observation of plants that are at the Instituto Cajal, Madrid, marker and pen on paper, 11" x 14

Dawn Hunter, Drawing of the Observatory across from the Cajal home in Madrid, marker and pen on paper, 11" x 14

Dawn Hunter, Paseo del Prado, pen, ink and acrylic on paper, 11" x 14"

Dawn Hunter, Cajal's hands, microscope, pyramidal neuron, and mini self-portrait from his sketchbook juxtaposed with his retirement statement and design details from his Nobel Prize - the photographic source imagery was originally black and white.  Color has been added and the color of the Nobel Prize design details has been altered, marker and pen on paper, 11" x 14"

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Double Feature @ the NLM and USC

I am honored and humbled to have had another opportunity to write for the National Library of Medicine's Circulating Now.  The new piece, Communing and Giggling with Cajal, expands upon my work as a Fulbright España Senior Research Scholar investigating the Legado de Cajal located at the Instituto Cajal, Madrid.  The article specifically focuses on my examination of his first sketchbook from Valencia.  Below is a highlight feature from the article:  

"What can one discover about Cajal beyond visual aesthetics through the task of drawing?  Through drawing, one can engage in “active looking” which is another level of perceptual involvement.  How and who we are with and in our work matters.  It determines how we conceptualize, realize, understand and share.  Toni Morrison wrote in The Bluest Eye “Love is never any better than the lover.  Wicked people love wickedly, violent people love violently, weak people love weakly, stupid people love stupidly…”  Line qualities within a pictorial composition are behaviors that have ideographic subtext.  When retraced, they reveal the content of the maker’s reasoning and ideology beyond technique.  The eye always seeks quality in the perceptually drawn line. The line’s merit invariably betrays the artist through the sight of the other. Study someone’s drawings, and you can study some of their components as a person, value system as a maker, or at a minimum the underground agenda with their work.

On the pages of Cajal’s histology sketchbook, it appears as if his imagination is synchronized with popular concepts in 19th century Fantastique literature.  Strewn with jottings and drawings examining the inner workings of rabbits, mice, cows and pigs, his sketchbook, like Alice’s world has no real order:  it is upside down and backward, there are different points of time in departures, varied research themes, inconsistent goals, plus blank and missing pages.  Alice metaphorically falls down the rabbit hole; however Cajal’s sketchbook is the rabbit hole.  On the page marked “medual conejo” (rabbit marrow), he enters the matrix with unquestioning, commanding lines while sketching the cells of a “fresco” rabbit all the while taunting himself with a “Cheshire” like face hidden in a cell with the words “absolutemente maligno” written beside it.   This cellular Easter egg was a delicious discovery I made one day while recreating that page.   I, and others, had looked at the page previously, but the process of active looking through drawing refined my observation in a manner that allowed me to notice this blast from the past and share a private giggle with Cajal."

I am so flattered to have my project about Santiago Ramón y Cajal featured on the University of South Carolina's College of Arts and Science web site, Sojourn to Spain.  My experience in Madrid was thrilling, and the access to the Legado de Cajal exceeded all of my expectations.  I am so honored to have this opportunity to share my experiences with colleagues and others within the USC community and beyond.  Thank you Mary-Kathryn Craft and Peggy Binette. 

“Heroes and scholars represent the opposite extremes... The scholar struggles for the benefit of all humanity, sometimes to reduce physical effort, sometimes to reduce pain, and sometimes to postpone death, or at least render it more bearable. In contrast, the patriot sacrifices a rather substantial part of humanity for the sake of his own prestige. His statue is always erected on a pedestal of ruins and corpses... In contrast, all humanity crowns a scholar, love forms the pedestal of his statues, and his triumphs defy the desecration of time and the judgment of history.”  

Santiago Ramón y Cajal, Advice for a Young Investigator

Monday, January 15, 2018

Drawing the Experience

"I am an artist, and I draw every day.  It is how I know and understand the world.  One day back in 2012, I was looking up neuroscience terminology to supplement an article I was reading on the claustrum, I stumbled across Cajal’s scientific drawings.  In the midst of trawling visuals on the web, I was swept away within “gesturely expressive” cellular images drawn in implied space.  I was dwarfed and transported into Cajal’s microscopic world.  Other neuroscience drawings were in the image cache, like those of Camillo Golgi.  However, I was not as taken with them, because Golgi’s illustrations were surrounded by a border that created closure and containment and possessed a topographical mannerism.  Based on those visual qualities, I felt Golgi’s drawings were “designed,” and that construction revealed a particular point of view regarding the role of drawing in his work:  that drawing was a vehicle to guide, transcribe, and organize nature in a manner that demonstrated a theory.  Instead of creating drawing from a designer’s perspective, Cajal’s work in comparison is drawn with a type of perceptual observation, one in which the inherent design of nature is discovered through sighting.  Drawing was a tool to observe, discern and recount microanatomy structure.  Cajal’s drawings are filled with actual lines and drawn with implied space.  I believe they demonstrate a philosophy that he was at the service of nature—recording and reporting the truthfulness of sight’s journey." - Dawn Hunter, November 2017

The above quote is from my piece "Drawn To, Drawn From Experience" written for the National Library of Medicine's, Circulating Now, blog.  It is the first of a three part series I am writing for them about Cajal, the latter two are forthcoming in 2018.

I completed my Senior Research Fulbright Fellowship at the Instituto Cajal, Madrid, España in December, 2017.  It was a remarkable privilege to commune with Cajal on a daily basis through studying and drawing his scientific illustrations.  There is information in those works that can only be accessed by active observation:  drawing.  Drawing provides a type of interaction with the works and entry into information about the maker and his theories that is not possible through passive observation.  Cajal proved to be a great teacher, and my "apprenticeship" yielded a fruitful scholarship of knowledge.  More, of course, is yet to come.  In the meantime, below are a couple of examples of my drawings of his drawings, as well as, information on my writing for the National Library of Medicine.

For more information about my past works on Cajal please visit my web site: or previous posts from this blog.  There are numerous posts about my Cajal project on this blog, here are a select few and some of my favorites to choose from:  Cajal Inventory, Cajal Inventory:  Head Heart and Spine, Sometimes Summer is All about the Work, and Started in the Middle.  

Dawn Hunter's study of Cajal's scientific drawing of pyramidal neurons, FRONT, 11" x 14," marker and pen on paper

Dawn Hunter's study of Cajal's scientific drawing of pyramidal neurons, BACK, 11" x 14," marker and pen on paper

Unfortunately, nature seems unaware of our intellectual need for convenience and unity, and very often takes delight in complication and diversity.

- Santiago Ramón y Cajal from his 1906 Nobel lecture 
"The structure and connexions of neurons."

Monday, June 19, 2017

¡Feliz Cumpleaños Cajal!

What better way than to spend the month of May?  With Santiago Ramón y Cajal in Spain of course! - his birthday month, born May 1, 1852.  A big thank you to Jeff Diamond, Juan De Carlos, Ricardo Martinez, Rosario Moratalla, and Fernando De Castro:  It was a privilege to participate as a symposium speaker and exhibit my work about Ramón y Cajal at the Instituto Cajal in Madrid as part of the second annual collaborative symposium between the National Institute of Health, Bethesda, MD and the Instituto Cajal, Madrid, Spain.  Below are some photos (and drawings) from the May 24th symposium in Spain and some of my new drawings completed this month at the NIH of Cajal's scientific drawings currently on display in the John Porter Neuroscience Research Center.

Dawn Hunter, Portrait of Cajal from observation of Jorge Zockoll's oversized photograph at the Instituto Cajal, Madrid, marker and pen on paper, 11" x 14"

Dawn Hunter, Diana the Huntress, marker and pen on paper, 11" x 14"

Dawn Hunter, drawing of the Cajal statue in Retiro Park, Madrid, Spain, marker and pen on paper, 11" x 14"

The NIH participants from left to right: Jeff Diamond, Benjamin White, Bruno Averbeck, me and Yarimar Carrasquillo seated in the Banco del Duque de Alba, en la Residencia de Estudiantes.  
Photo by Juan De Carlos Segovía.

Dawn Hunter, drawing of NIH researcher Benjamin White's talk, marker on paper, 11" x 14" 

Dawn Hunter, drawing of NIH researcher Kenton Swartz's talk,  marker and pen on paper, 11" x 14" 

During the installation of my Cajal Inventory work at the Instituto Cajal.  For more information on the Cajal Inventory work, click here:  Cumulative Effect:  Cajal Inventory drawings.

Dawn Hunter, study of Cajal's Intestinal Villi, Interstitial Cells of Cajal, marker and pen on paper, 11" x 14"

Dawn Hunter, drawing of Cajal's Development of Granule Cells in the Cerebellum, marker and pen on paper, 11" x 14"

Dawn Hunter, study of Cajal's Olfactory Bulb, marker and pen on paper, 11" x 14"

Dawn Hunter, study of Cajal's Diencephalic Nuclei, marker and pen on paper, 11" x 14"

Portrait of me with Cajal's Nobel Prize, photo by Ricardo Martínez.

Installation of the Cajal Inventory drawings at the Instituto Cajal, May 2017.  Photo by Dawn Hunter.

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

"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.