Art venues sprout up in the unlikeliest of venues. In some instances, office buildings offer art galleries in their lobbies in order to help bring arts-and-culturally minded types into their midst. Alternatively, guerrilla artists may present artwork in a public arena in order to gain exposure and make a statement.
Such partnerships are beneficial, but it can be most challenging, and rewarding to the visitor, when the artwork reflects the “business” of the venue.
Art Times Two, run by artist and educator Madelaine Shellaby, has been curating exhibits at the Princeton Brain and Spine Institute on Alexander Road in West Windsor for two years. Artists such as John Franklin, Rory Mahon and Andrew Wilkinson have most recently exhibited here. Now, Ms. Shellaby has trained her fine eye on an exhibit perfectly suited for Princeton Brain and Spine. Interior Design: The Brain and Spine in Art, on view through March 2012, features four artists who have focused on, yes, the brain and spine.
Rachel Collins, who hales from Alexandria, Va., has created a series of 30 watercolors (a lucky 13 are exhibited here) that magnify the human vertebrae eight times actual size. Ms. Collins fades color and intensity to articulate the shapes, curves and smoothness of bone.
During the opening reception, Ms. Collins admitted she avoided art until age 35 because her mother, an artist, was “so good, so creative.”
After her children were born and while Ms. Collins was living in Haifa, Israel, working as a librarian and archivist, she curated a few exhibits and took a watercolor class – a medium her mother had not worked in. When she returned to the U.S., her mother suggested she become a science illustrator. “She knew I had the capacity to fuss over something until it was accurate,” says Ms. Collins, who took a class in entomological watercolor at the Smithsonian Institution in 1994.
From there, she worked as an intern in the department of entomology at the National Museum of Natural History. When a staffer reneged on a contract, Ms. Collins was in the right place to step in and create 75 pen-and-ink drawings of moths. She was invited to teach watercolor by the Art League of Alexandria, and saw her science illustrating phasing out as fine art took over. “I had been working with microscopes to see close up, so my subjects tend to be close-ups in nature,” she says.
Bones have been a part of Ms. Collins’ life since her childhood in the Adirondack Mountains where her mother gathered the bones of deer, bear, bats and even a blue marlin and reassembled them. “My mother’s attic was full of skeletons,” says Ms. Collins. “We had bones everywhere – my mother made bison bone wall hangings. Guests would freak out because there were alligator bones next to the bed.”
When her mother developed Alzheimer’s disease, Ms. Collins saved some of the bones and, as an homage to her mother, created the vertebrae series from bison bones.
In her studio in Alexandria’s Torpedo Factory, Ms. Collins takes advantage of the cool light from a north-facing window and adds warm incandescent fixtures to achieve light and shadow patterns. She is more interested in shadow on the object than cast shadow. “Watercolor is a simple medium,” says Ms. Collins. “Every pigment has a strong personality.” She uses rough paper and starts with an under painting of ultramarine. “I’m fussy about the edges.”
After the painting is complete, she may rotate it 180 degrees. “By turning it, it has more movement,” she says. The vertebrae start to look abstract, or like something else entirely – shells, or the inner ear.
Joy Kreves, a multimedia artist who lives in Ewing, was more interested in showing the interior of the mind than anatomy.
“We are so tied to the environment, we can’t think of ourselves as separate,” she says. “I suspect our brains are intertwined with the environment.”
In her series of small collages, “Earth/Brain Events,” she explores solastalgia, an idea put forth by Glenn Albrecht that emotional distress can be caused by traumatic environmental changes.
The brain is the earth, so we have to take care of the environment to take care of ourselves, she says.
In “Homesick Brain,” a three-dimensional work, she creates the brain as a landscape. Ferns and moss made of porcelain, dried plants and a jewel-like bronze cicada inhabit the landscape. Shells pressed into the clay brain are like fossils.
Kirsten Fischler works with the grain of wood. Her “Knotty Thoughts” series is an investigation into neuronal networks, exploring the similarities between the brain, tree root structures, mycelia and communication systems, and was inspired by the neurological drawings of Spanish Nobel Laureate Santiago Ramon y Cajal (1852-1934).
Considered the father of modern neuroscience, Cajal was skilled at drawing what he saw under the microscope. A drawing of the optic tectum of a sparrow, for example, looks like a cross section of roots growing underground. A drawing of a rodent’s hippocampus looks like a maddening maze some Skinnerian may have dreamt up to torture a befuddled hamster.
Looking at his drawings, and the grain in the wood she scavenged from dumpsters and neighbors’ trash, Ms. Fischler began making connections. “This is my ode to Cajal,” she says.
Ms. Fischler became interested in the lignans found in the knots of pine. “They are difficult to break down,” she says. “You need a noxious chemical to break down the lignans in order to pulp wood. Lignans are also found in flax seed, and lignan supplements are marketed to women for post-menopausal benefits and cancer prevention. Yet there’s no data to back this,” she says.
The title “Knotty Thoughts” also refers to middle age. “Should I go out and get flax seed?” asks Ms. Fischler. “Should I listen to the advertisements?
Carolyn Lee Vehslage, a fiber artist from Sicklerville, makes quilts of the brain.
A member of the group Fiber Revolution, she was formerly a sailor (some of her early quilts were made on sailboats) and computer engineer and took the stress from that work and turned it into a series “Fried Circuits and System Overload.” Into fabric she sewed circuit board imagery: computer components, discs, wires, CDs to express the emotions of dealing with computers.
Ms. Vehslage has schizo affective disorder, manic depression and dyslexia and writes backwards, and these themes are worked into her canvas. “Dyslexia” shows a slice of the brain, the portion for reading and writing, as well as the other portions she needs to decode information. A subway map is silkscreened on the fabric, and alphabet is printed backwards, as well as other words that come to her mind.
In “Brain Chemistry,” the chemical formula for seratonin is stenciled on a brain scan, printed on raw silk, then quilted. Ms. Vehslage uses free-motion machine quilting, with both feed dogs down, so she can move the fabric with her hands.
The added bonus of an exhibit like Interior Design is, if you’re experiencing brain and spine issues, you’ll be in the right place to be treated.
Interior Design is on view at Princeton Brain and Spine, 731 Alexander Road, Suite 200, West Windsor. Open by appointment: to schedule, contact curator Madelaine Shellaby at firstname.lastname@example.org or 609 203-4622. http://www.arttimestwo.com