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An Artist’s View of the Brain

Posted in Special Feature on 10th Dec 2012


Jane Southgate

Jane Southgate gained her BA at Chelsea School of fine art and has worked as a professional artist from her studio in Suffolk for the last 17 years. She regularly exhibits, undertakes commissions and runs workshops for a variety of different groups. Her work is generally three- dimensional and often contains a textile element.

Correspondence to:
Jane Southgate, 1 Bridges Cottages, Darmsden, Ipswich, Suffolk, IP6 8RA Email:

There is always a biological element in my work, usually human but not exclusively, however lately I have been fascinated by the brain.This interest arose after the death of a family member from a brain tumour. As an artist, the majority of my work involves life cycles and has at times addressed pregnancy,the lifecycle and nesting of birds, reclamation and recycling, decay and new life within the natural world. I wasn’t looking for answers, reasons or even explanations linked with this event. It merely highlighted to me what an amazing and fascinating organ the brain is.Initially I concentrated on the theoretical concepts, I am enthralled by how we can be ourselves, have our own individual personality and yet everything we are, do and think has been explained by some as merely a process in the brain,how can this be all we are? How can electro-chemical reactions within our brains make me an artist and you a neurologist? And where does the spirit of each of us come from, and reside, within that amazing network of firing synapses? Well, these questions I still can’t answer and they still fill me with awe.I have,however, been learning more about the physical construction of the brain and, as a sculptor who frequently works with textiles,this grasping at an understanding of the fabrication of the brain holds another area for amazement.

In order to explore my thoughts and findings I began making papercuts of the outer appearance of the brain, that beautiful folded and pleated, almost quilted surface.I followed this with a papercut of an artistic interpretation of neurons. Neurons, it seems to me, really are the thread of our thoughts. Their delicate spidery dendrites and axons have a truly textile, woven quality to them. For this very reason I crocheted a neuron, but this wasn’t delicate enough and I felt it lacked the fantastically fragile appearance of the real thing. This led me into an experiment of embroidering neurones onto dissolvable fabric so that I could make a neuron lace. I was happier with the results but currently I am trying to find a way of making them more three-dimensional as the flat lace doesn’t do justice to the the neural networks and interconnections.I have embroidered a side view of the brain and upper brainstem, and made a quilted version although I intend to work on this quilting effect much more as my first attempt doesn’t embody the sumptuous depths of the crenellations that I want to capture. I have just finished knitting myself a brain. I took my knitting in my bag with me wherever I was going for the last few weeks so I could work on it whenever I had a few minutes.It was fantastic fun to see people’s reactions as they often stopped me to ask what it was I was knitting. I am trying to design a way to make a very loose 3-D weaving based on images of thought pathways and digitally recoloured photographs of neuron interconnections especially the gorgeous ‘Brainbow Mouse’ images by Jean Livet, Joshua R Sanes and Jeff Lichtman but it is proving to be rather demanding. Having recently visited the Wellcome Trust to see ‘Brains: The Mind as Matter’ exhibition I was captivated by the fantastic drawings of Santiago Ramon y Cajal. I am hoping to create a body of work that will be exhibited together in order to inspire other peoples’ interest and exploration into this fascinating organ.Particularly,I hope to encapsulate a sense of its visual beauty in physical construction, externally and internally, not just its vast, assorted and amazing functions.



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