Elizabeth Jameson found her art when her own brain lost one of its most basic functions.
After suddenly finding herself unable to speak, Jameson was diagnosed with MS in 1991. She soon came to know the geography of her own mind through countless MRI sessions.
Jameson felt a hunger to step beyond her career as a lawyer and reinterpret this medical imagery, adding an artistic treatment to her brain scans in what has become a unique form of portraiture. Jameson writes that her MS inspires her “to create images that provide new insights into the brain and, at the same time, makes medical imaging and its representative humanity more accessible to both medical professionals and others who view these revealing pictures.”
Most recently, the Harvard Center for Brain Science has commissioned the installation of four of Jameson’s paintings. We are proud to feature Jameson’s work in this exclusive online gallery as well as an interview with the artist below.
INTERVIEW WITH ELIZABETH JAMESON
How did you arrive at your present moment as an artist who is deeply engaged with her own brain and the brains of others?
I became fascinated by the brain when I suddenly lost my ability to talk. It happened when I was playing with my children at a local park. I had no pain but, with absolutely no warning, I found I could not speak. The next week, surgeons removed a part of my brain in order to determine the origin of my aphasia. I was subsequently diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Since then, in order to monitor the progression of the disease, I have spent many hours in the darkness of the scanning machine, during innumerable MRIs (brain scans).
My diagnosis and treatment gave rise to a keen interest in medical technology and inspired me to create images that interpret the medical images in a new light. For the anxious patient, the MRI images can appear ugly and frightening—a bunch of black and grey pixels spelling out their fate. I felt a strong urge to reinterpret these images—to use them to explore the wonder and beauty of all brains including those with a disease. My images create an artist’s view of imaging technology–one that is both accessible to those who view these revealing pictures as either subject or doctor and also one that, I hope, captures some of the feeling and emotions evoked by these kinds of medical images.
I discovered art after my diagnosis. Prior to this time, I was a civil rights lawyer.
Describe one or two of the works we see in the online gallery. Where is it derived from and what led you to select this particular imagery? How does the image of the brain– first seen through medical imagery– change once you start working with it?
My artwork derives largely from my own MRI or brain scans. My two favorite etchings, Valentine and Emerging, deal with the exquisite nature of the structures of the brain.
Emerging is a cropped image of my frontal lobe and inter-hemispheric fissure. In this image, my brain and the skull are emerging from the quiet of my interior self and entering into the world outside. This image captures the mystery and magic of the brain and asks us to meditate on where the brain is going on its journey.
Valentine I is another cropped image – this time of my brain stem, cerebellum and corpus callosum. I chose this portion of the brain because of its shape– the structure that echoes that of the human heart. I use warm and cool colors in my work to evoke the emotions that I feel when I immerse myself in the interior of the brain, and to express my happiness in discovering the image of the heart within the interiors of my brain.
What do you find beautiful about the brain?
I continually find myself humbled and awed by the layer upon layers of mysterious and imponderable structures that comprise the brain. I find beauty in its mystery.
Do you think the brain will ever understand itself, or is this organ too vastly complex to grasp its own workings?
I am comforted by the fact that I believe my brain knows exactly what it is doing. I have never felt that I needed to fight my disease or the repercussions of having an imperfect brain. Instead, I use my art to celebrate the brain. Without multiple sclerosis, I would never have thought so deeply about this incredibly vital organ. In fact, without MS I would never have discovered my passion for art.
You write that your MS inspires you to create images that provide new insights into the brain. What are the nature of these new insights? Are they insights that can only be achieved through art?
MRIs produce images of a brain that are naked and without emotional context, without passion or sadness, without all the frailties, humor, and idiosyncrasies that make us who we are. I feel I am enormously lucky that my art allows me to spend my time hunting for images where I can find beauty and sensuousness, as well as perplexing complexity.
More generally, do you see an ultimate division between the ambitions of science and of art, or do you feel they are exploring the same issues at their cores?
I really don’t know. I imagine scientists are trying to discover the mysteries of the brain, while I am trying to present and interpret the beauty in that mystery. I like to think that we are all approaching the study of the brain with the same degree of humility and awe.