The Art of Distillation

“When you learn the art of distillation, you will gain a lifelong skill that will impact every area of your life. Think of a storyteller who captivates you with every word. Their story is well distilled, with unnecessary details stripped away. Think about the last time you were entranced by a drawing or painting. Its ability to grab you immediately is a sign that the concept behind the artwork is compressed into its most compact form, allowing it to travel efficiently from the canvas straight into your brain.”

“Building a Second Brain” by Tiago Forte

Several years ago, I was fortunate enough to have a chance to display my artwork at the “Art of the Brain” exhibition organized by my former graduate school. There was a reception held on the opening night and there was a big crowd of people.

At the time, I was a bit surprised by how many people were non-scientists. I wondered what could have attracted them to such a show. Now I know that you don’t have to fully understand science to like it. These people attended so they could feel in touch with cutting edge science presented in an accessible way. It made them feel smart and well-rounded.

One of them approached me and started asking questions about my work – “Tortured” in particular. He asked me about how likely it is that a scientific image would be so clear and if it’s not, how do I decide which details to include and which ones to leave out. That made our discussion go down the “background” rabbit hole…

Background noise

In the vast majority of scientific techniques, the word “background” has a very negative connotation. It usually implies that your detection method picked up something else, besides the specific signal you were looking for. People even go as far as calling their images “dirty”. In microscopy, that non-specific “noise” usually appears in the form of either randomly scattered bright pixels, or as a general haze of auto-fluorescence all around your cells.

In contrast, high quality images usually have a very clean, black background that, when printed, has a glossy feel to it. To capture this quality, I use shiny black satin as the backdrop for most of my art. It gives the piece a clean and crisp look that allows the cells to really pop forward.

“Tortured”, for example, was inspired by a series of images similar to the one shown below. It shows an injured nerve that is attempting to regenerate. The asterisk indicates the injury site, and the green fibers on the right are trying to grow back out.

You can see that there is a lot of haze and random spots. That is what I leave out to allow the viewer to focus on the most important details. Namely, healthy nerve fibers on the left, injury in the center and the deformed neurons on the right. With these three key structures, it’s easy to explain the process of nerve injury and regeneration to your friend or family member that comes to visit.

“Lost in Manhattan” provides another example

This project began with another image that I acquired in the lab – this time a dense network of neurons (nerve cells) grown in a dish. While I really liked the original image, it would have been close to impossible for me to recreate all the connections in beads, so I had to be selective in which connections to emphasize and which ones to omit.

After creating the main outlines, it was particularly challenging for me to start filling in what I considered to be empty areas. The network was physically growing in density, making it very difficult to thread the wires from cell to cell. Initially, I was planning to make the longer connections using thread, but ended up using wire throughout the project, making it more sturdy and uniform. Uniformity of technique gives me a sense of peace.

To fill in the empty spots, I had to populate the landscape with connections that did not correspond to the original image. Despite this being a creative process, introducing elements that are absent in the original always leads me to a sense of internal conflict. It almost feels like falsifying data. But I followed the patterns that could have formed in nature and hoped that the connections would arise organically.

There can be no limit to labyrinths and tangles, but at some point a project must come to an end. So after creating what I considered to be a sense of balance, I brought it to a conclusion.

“Lost in Manhattan”

13″ X 13″

Both pieces are available on my Gallery page here.

Art is my emotional outlet and my oasis.  I use art to express my feelings and work through life issues.  Come join me on this journey of letting go of control and letting the creative process take over.  You will get access to all of the behind the scenes footage and see the major breakthroughs that translate into new artwork.

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