Ackland Visitor Talks About Her Pyramidal Neuron Tattoo

Jane Tandler has a Masters of Science in Neurobiology and works at a Durham nonprofit. Like our previous Cajal-tattooed interviewee, she chose the iconic The pyramidal neuron of the cerebral cortex. The Ackland’s Ariel Fielding talked with her about her Ph.D. research, her affinity for the work of Santiago Ramón y Cajal, and life after neuroscience.

I’m so happy to be talking with you, Jane! A colleague shared a photo of your tattoo from the day you visited The Beautiful Brain, and I’ve wanted to interview you ever since. In the meantime I heard about another local resident with a Cajal tattoo, Vincent Boudreau, and it was when I posted my interview with him that I found you. How many times did you visit the exhibition?

Just the once. I was really excited to hear that it was coming, and it was beautiful. I went with some scientist friends of mine.

Did you have a favorite image in the show?

I mean, I’m biased toward the one I’d chosen for my tattoo, The pyramidal neuron of the cerebral cortex. That was the most exciting one to see. I was in a neuroscience Ph.D. program at Duke, so I’ve looked at these images for years and years. Being able to see them in person was really very cool.

Tell me about your work in neuroscience.

I came to the Cognitive Neuroscience admitting program at Duke in 2015. This is sort of a long, circuitous story, but I’ll try to make it brief. I was going to study PTSD and embodied cognition, thinking about how the symptoms of PTSD reflect the physical experience of trauma. Then I switched gears, because it’s a rotation program—you rotate through different disciplines and pick whichever one seems most interesting. I ended up in developmental psychoneuroimmunology, which is how the immune system formed in utero affects the brain, specifically linking immune insults by air pollution to eventual development of autism.

Whoa, so interesting!

I know! I totally fell in love with that idea and that topic, and then that mentor moved to Harvard. I don’t know how much you’re aware of the structure of Ph.D. programs, but you’re tied to your mentor. After a long back and forth about whether or not I was moving with her, I ended up staying at Duke and joining a different lab, studying the immune system and how it interacts with the retina, looking at glaucoma and other neurodegenerative diseases, and how immune cells play a role in perhaps accelerating neurodegeneration. And then, a year later, that mentor left to go to the NIH. I ended up in another lab looking at drug development and developing tools for neuroscience halfway between neurobiology and biomedical engineering. By this point I was in my third year, and after a year in that lab—which was great, I really enjoyed working there, and they were doing amazing work—the work that I was doing with a bunch of nonprofits in the area doing pro bono consulting was much more fulfilling to me than being bounced around from lab to lab. I ended up switching gears, and I work now at a local nonprofit in Durham called Senior PharmAssist, where we help older adults obtain and better manage needed medications and health insurance. That’s my autobiographical spiel. I’m the Development and Communications Director here.

I got my Cajal tattoo in 2016, because I had wanted it for five years, and I told myself, “If I want it for five years, I can get it.” That was my deadline, I met it, and I have no regrets about it at all. Neuroscience has been a big part of my life, even though I’m no longer in the field.

How did you pick that particular image, The pyramidal neuron of the cerebral cortex?

I spent a lot of time looking through the images. There aren’t a lot that are super scalable; many of them are larger than one might want for one’s first tattoo. There are a lot that are intricate and interwoven, so it’s hard to separate out distinct elements. This one was just so clean-cut, and it fit so perfectly in this particular space on my back that I’d picked; it seemed so nicely framed. It was a pretty intuitive choice. I kept coming back to it, which was a good indication to me that it was a good idea.

Do you remember the first time you saw a Cajal drawing?

I think probably when I was fifteen. I read this book called Second Nature, by Gerald Edelman. He has some Cajal drawings in there; that might have been my first sighting. The other thing is that I grew up obsessed with the Spanish language and Spanish culture. I spent a lot of time in high school learning Spanish and travelling to Spain. I did an immersion program, and I T.A.’d in college. So it was a very nice tie-in to have such an important neuroscientist be an important part of Spanish history as well. My second mentor, the one who’s doing glaucoma research, gave me an early copy of Cajal’s autobiography, which is an extremely cool thing to have.

Do you still maintain an interest in the topics you studied with your mentors?

Yeah, it helps that I formed some really close friendships in graduate school. I have the squad that I went to the Cajal exhibit with, who are passionate, intelligent people who are also lovely and great to spend time with. That’s helped me to stay in constant communication with the field. I get to hear about their work. I’m still on a bunch of email lists, and I follow the research, but honestly it’s been nice to get a little bit of space from it. You feel like there’s less pressure on the day-to-day to solve Parkinson’s or something. I’m glad that really smart people are doing that, and I’m going to be over here trying to get seniors the medications they need. It’s just a little more tangible.

Photograph by Brenda Yang

Vincent Boudreau, UNC Cell Biologist, Gets Cajal Tattoo

Vincent Boudreau, recently turned Dr. Vincent Boudreau, is a graduate student in Cell Biology at UNC. A rumor reached the Ackland that Boudreau had a tattoo of a Cajal drawing on his arm, so naturally we wanted to find out more. The Ackland’s Ariel Fielding interviewed this fellow Canadian-North Carolinian shortly before the closing of The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal.

You are one of two visitors to The Beautiful Brain whom I know of with a Cajal tattoo. I understand that, by sheer coincidence, you heard The Beautiful Brain was coming to the Ackland right after you had decided to get your tattoo. Tell me about your work at UNC and why Cajal is important to you.

As a cell biologist, I’ve always been very taken by these nineteenth century/turn-of-the-century scientists who illustrated their findings. It’s always seemed a cross between science and art in some way. I’ve always been inspired by that. Santiago Ramón y Cajal is not the only one; I’ve really loved illustrations by Ernst Haeckel and several others who are well known for that kind of work. The inspiration for the tattoo that I got is someone very close to me, my daughter, who has a brain condition. Obviously that’s a difficult situation, but one thing that really struck me about trying to learn about the molecular and cellular components of that condition, and also the potential outcomes, was both how little we know about how the brain works, and how mysterious it is as an organ. Santiago Ramón y Cajal—we can see it in the exhibit—shows how complex different types of cells are in the brain, and how complex the connections between cells are. The inspiration for my tattoo comes from the artistic component of his work, his ability to delicately illustrate things that are so complex, as well as the mysteries of how the brain works.

Why this particular image, The pyramidal neuron of the cerebral cortex?

Getting a tattoo—there are several components that go into it. One of the main things is, how easy is it to put on skin? Images or drawings that have small, delicate lines with very high contrast are perfect. That’s one of the components of his images. I think that drawing in particular is one of his illustrations that, to me, is most aesthetically pleasing. It really illustrates how complex that particular type of neuron can be while being simple enough to put into tattoo form.

It’s interesting what you said about your daughter; I just learned that Wilder Penfield, a neurologist and neurosurgeon who studied with Cajal, was deeply interested in solving the mystery of epilepsy because his sister had the disease. I don’t know what you’d call that kind of impetus, but I wonder how common it is among scientists.

I’ve been in science for the better part of ten years, and I’ve found my own inspirations. I’m very interested in the intersection of science and art. The way that scientists operate is very similar to the way that many artists operate, in the way they pursue their work and in what inspires them. I’ve found inspiration in my work, but I have thought about the complexities of the nervous system and the complexities of neuroscience, and considered changing course, especially with the situation with my daughter. The question of impetus is very interesting.

Do you have an artistic practice yourself?

I don’t, but my partner Natalie is a curator for Kalisher in Carrboro. We’ve hosted a conference here at RTP [Research Triangle Park] on the boundaries between art and science. I think there are a lot of parallels in the ways that artists and scientists work and think, and also their practice, their craft. For scientists and artists, their work is something that comes to be with hours and hours of work, with craftsmanship, and with dedication.

Tell me about your scientific work.

My Ph.D. has been on, broadly, cell division, and when cells divide, regardless of the context in which they divide, the nucleus of the cell needs to be assembled every time. This happens especially in development almost a trillion times to form all the cells of the body. I’ve been very interested in how the nucleus, which houses all the genetic material of the cell, comes to be and how it’s physically built. That’s more or less been the cornerstone of my thesis, and why the regulation of the shape and size of the nucleus after cell division is really critical in maintaining healthy cells. We know that that kind of process goes wrong in disease states, especially in cancer.

So you’re looking also at what can go wrong in cell division and what factors can influence that?

Exactly. This is another thing that has drawn me to Santiago Ramón y Cajal and other turn-of-the-century scientists: I’ve spent most of my time doing microscopy, watching cells behave and carry out their functions. The microscopy that we do today is very different from the microscopy that was done in Cajal’s time, and I think that’s illustrated in the exhibit, in having a contemporary component. It’s always something that’s been striking in this kind of work: we interpret our images and our microscopy in a similar way, whether that’s in a more quantitative fashion or in deciding what we’re looking at. Santiago Ramon y Cajal had to interpret what he saw under the microscope to illustrate exactly the point that he was trying to make. In cell biology today, the importance of interpreting what we see under the microscope is no less than it was for Cajal.

 

Harley Smyth and Santiago Ramón y Cajal: One Degree of Separation

Harley Smyth at Oxford

 

Harley Smyth (M.A., M.D., D.Phil. Oxon.) is a Canadian neurosurgeon whose career was deeply influenced by a series of encounters with Wilder Penfield (1891-1976), a pioneering American-Canadian neurologist, neurosurgeon, and founder of the Montreal Neurological Institute. In the spring of 1924, Penfield travelled to Spain with the express purpose of studying with Santiago Ramón y Cajal and his fellow neuroscientist Pío del Río Hortega at the Residencia des Estudiantes, Laboratorio de Histopatología, in Madrid. Cajal,who won the Nobel Prize jointly with the Italian Camillo Golgi in 1906, is best known for the neuron doctrine, or the idea that the brain is composed of individual cells, and for his thousands of extraordinary drawings of the microanatomy of the brain, still unequalled in accuracy and beauty. Río Hortega discovered microglia, the cells that protect the brain from infection. Penfield, who together with Río Hortega discovered oligodendroglia—the cells which support and protect the axons of the central nervous system—is best known for his work on the cortical basis of higher function and for his innovations in epilepsy surgery.

The Residencia des Estudiantes, where Penfield went to learn from Cajal, was conceived as a center for artistic and scientific innovation and exchange. It flourished during Spain’s Silver Age, a period of tremendous creativity and experimentation in the decades leading up to the Spanish Civil War. Albert Einstein visited the Residencia in 1923, just a year before Wilder Penfield. Poet Federico Garcia Lorca was there during the same time as Penfield, as were filmmaker Luis Buñuel and artist Salvador Dalí.

Just as Penfield was profoundly influenced by the burgeoning interdisciplinary atmosphere of the Residencia de Estudiantes, Harley Smyth was influenced by Penfield, the person who connected him to Cajal in the lineage of modern neuroscience.

Director of Communications Ariel Fielding talked to Harley Smyth a week before the closing of the exhibition The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramon y Cajal at the Ackland Art Museum, and the subsequent return of Cajal’s drawings to Madrid.

You are just one degree of separation from Santiago Ramon y Cajal, the father of modern neuroscience. Tell me how you came to meet Wilder Penfield, the man who is the connector between you and Cajal.

 At the age of fourteen I had decided to become a neurosurgeon. I recall having read a Maclean’s magazine article about Wilder Penfield. It featured the famous Karsh photograph of Penfield at his microscope, and I think the caption was “A musing genius.” This gave me an introduction to Wilder Penfield and his vision. My uncle, a military physician, was interested in fostering any medical interest that I had, and he somehow arranged that I could meet with Dr. Penfield if I went to Montreal. I travelled by train from Ottawa to Montreal at the age of fifteen. I found my way to the Montreal Neurological Institute and entered its picturesque lobby. A copy of the sculpture entitled La Nature se dévoilant à la Science stood centrally. On a nearby wall hung a splendid autographed portrait of Pío del Río Hortega. It was a revealing introduction to the spirit of the Institute.  I met with Dr. Penfield and was fascinated by my first viewing of a neurosurgical operation.

The next chapter was my entry into medical school at Queen’s University just two years later, in 1957, at the age of seventeen. It was because of Dr. Penfield that the first book I bought as a first-year pre-medical student was a graphic biography of Cajal. In the penultimate year of medical school I spent a long summer in Uganda and worked there with Dr. Denis Burkitt, who was making the first causal connection between a virus and a human cancer, Burkitt’s lymphoma. I was fascinated by Burkitt’s elegant blending of climate, rainfall, and epidemiology as an example of interdisciplinary original research. Later that year I was a successful applicant for a Rhodes Scholarship, and now that I knew I was headed for Oxford and an attempt at research experience, I wrote once again to Dr. Penfield. I wrote that, “I’ve tried to follow in your footsteps, and somehow or other I’ve won a Rhodes Scholarship. I’ve written to Oxford to attempt to plan my studies, but I never received any reply.” Penfield said, “Well, Smyth, nobody ever returns letters from Oxford. Why don’t you come see me, and we’ll talk about what you can do.” I went to Montreal and met with him again. That evening he attended our Rhodes Scholars’ Sailing Dinner where he addressed the departing scholars.

In the course of that evening, Penfield said, “Here’s what worked for me at Oxford.” Penfield had been going back and forth from England to France to help at military hospitals; he was a wound-dresser at World War One hospital stations in France between terms at Oxford. On the return journey of one of these trips, his ship was torpedoed by an early German U-boat and his leg was shattered into several pieces. He ended up, amazingly, being taken back to Oxford to 13 Norham Gardens, the residence of the Regius Professor of Medicine, Sir William Osler, the great Canadian physician. Penfield was nursed by Lady Osler, and thus became acquainted with Sir William Osler. Wilder Penfield was an American-born Rhodes Scholar, from Wisconsin, and Lady Osler was American—she was a Revere, descended from Paul Revere—their son was named Revere, and he was fighting in France.

Sir William said to him, “Now, Penfield, I think you should meet Sir Charles Sherrington. He is a neurophysiologist, and his research is in neurology.” That was the very first inkling that Wilder Penfield had that he would be involved in neuroscience. Sherrington was a poet, a philosopher, and a scientist. Penfield worked with Sherrington in his laboratory for several months learning about reflexes and nerve conduction and neurology. Then Penfield conceived the idea that he would like to be involved in research in curing epilepsy. Why? Because his sister had epilepsy. He determined that the clue to working in neurology in a way that would actually be practically applied to the welfare of patients was to find out what caused epilepsy. He suspected that it was scarring on the cortex, and that to understand what caused the scarring, he needed to understand every set of cells present in the cortex. As he sought this basic knowledge, he learned that Cajal was working in Madrid, and that he had produced these marvelous microdemonstrations of the infrastructure of the cortex.

Cajal was not multilingual; most of his work was published in Spanish. Penfield decided to go to Madrid to learn more of this original work. What Penfield understood, and this is the amazing thing to me, is the absolute importance of learning about the histocytology of the central nervous system, and learning what its actual structure was. Penfield and his wife and child went to Madrid. He found Cajal in a profound depression for part of the time of his visit, perhaps because most of his original work had not been published in the wider world.

Wilder Penfield at Princeton, 1913

To return to Penfield’s advice to you, though, what did you do about it when you arrived in Oxford?

 In Montreal, Penfield had advised that as soon as I arrived in Oxford, I should make an appointment to meet the current Regius Professor of Medicine, Sir George Pickering. I did, and I found myself in the former residence of Sir William Osler. Pickering was resting in his bedroom after an international tour of lectures. I told him that Penfield had sent me, and that I was looking for advice about how best to spend the year or two of my Rhodes Scholarship. He said, “Smyth, you should study Schools. It’s our very best scientific degree, The Honours School of Animal Physiology.” I went to discuss it with the tutors at Balliol College, and they agreed to help me along. My tutor was none other than Denis Noble, who was in his first year of teaching at Oxford. I was his first student. He had just completed famous work in Imperial College London, where he had rewritten the Hodgkin-Huxley equations for nerve conduction, and applied them to the nervous system of the heart, the Purkinje fibers. He was a brilliant young biophysicist and physiologist.

I set to work learning the history of physiology, how it was formed, and what kind of critical thinking was involved in designing experiments. The graduates of this course were meant to emerge as independent researchers with an ability to design an experiment. Sir George Pickering was a leader in the field of human clinical experimental medicine and a leading world authority on high blood pressure. His team designed experiments to study actual human physiology, rather than primarily operating on animals. Schools was a three-year course, but I began to think I might write the exams in one year—I was so short of time and money. I took the exams at the end of that year and got a First.

I then went to see Sir George Pickering again, and he asked me come to work with him. I said to him, “What I really want to do is to find out how the brain lowers the blood pressure during sleep.” In the summer term of 1965, I returned to the Montreal Neurological Institute where I learned how to study human sleep. During the course of my research back in Oxford, which would take three more years, Dr. Penfield came for a Rhodes Scholars Dinner one November. It brought full circle that first meeting I had with him when I was fifteen. I took him and Mrs. Penfield in my Morris Mini-Minor in the pouring rain to see the Canadian maple tree they had given to Sir George Pickering to plant in his garden in memory of Sir William Osler. This was eleven years after we first met. Our last contact was when I invited Dr. Penfield to come and give his final lecture, on cortical stimulation, at the Toronto Academy of Medicine. I think he was seventy-six at the time.

You and I met many years ago singing sacred polyphonic music of the Renaissance, sixteenth century English polyphony, and Gregorian chant. The halls of the Residencia de Estudiantes, where Wilder Penfield went to study with Santiago Ramón y Cajal in 1924, were filled with music, and it is likely that Penfield crossed paths with Lorca, Buñuel, and Dalí when he was there. As a neurosurgeon, what does art mean to you?

 Art and the humanities in general are inseparable from science in the world of learning. Your exhibit ties beautifully together the abilities of Cajal as both an artist and a scientist. Perhaps very early on I was aware that medical studies and neurosurgery threatened to be too narrowing, too focused, too exclusive. I feared I would not have a broad education and I did my best to study Latin and Greek, Philosophy and English during my pre-medical years at Queen’s. I would attempt this grounding before I got lost in science. Again, Penfield was my exemplar, writing in other genres, championing the learning of second languages in youth, and lending his influence to the Vanier Institute for the Family.

I loved your reflection on our shared experience of singing. I thought about the Residencia in Madrid. You mentioned Lorca, Buñuel, and Dalí. Penfield himself reflected that many influential people there were involved in deeply humanitarian concerns and were leaders in a movement that would culminate in the Spanish Civil War. I like to think that there might have been a chapel or church near enough to the Residencia to enable the students to hear the music of a Mass by Tomás Luis de Victoria, the great Spanish Renaissance composer. Perhaps not many of those radicals went to Mass, but Penfield himself said that even the scientists in that place and time were as much involved in humanistic reforms as they were in science.

UNC-Trained Neurologist Talks About Her Role in ‘The Beautiful Brain’


Janet Dubinsky
, Ph.D., is a neuroscientist at the University of Minnesota who was involved in organizing the exhibition The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal. As a researcher, she is interested in mitochondrial permeability. She also has a program, BrainU, which engages teachers in teaching about and applying neuroscience in the classroom. Dr. Dubinsky is a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill. She talked with Director of Communications Ariel Fielding on a recent visit to the Ackland to see The Beautiful Brain.

How did you come to study neuroscience, and why did you choose UNC?

Well, the brain is in charge of everything we do. At the time I went to graduate school, we were just beginning to really comprehend in a concrete way some of the discrete building blocks at the molecular and cellular level that contribute to brain function, and it was very exciting. I wanted to be a part of that. I had worked for many years doing computer programming for small laboratory computers when they were first built; they were made to take biological signals from real experiments and digitize them. Most of the labs that I worked in were neuroscience labs, so having been a part of that process from a technician’s point of view, getting my Ph.D. was the next step — to see if I could myself enter the field and make a contribution.

One of my undergraduate advisors suggested I look at UNC, and I did. Ed Perl [Edward R. Perl, Chair of the Department of Physiology from 1971-1987] called me and said, “Please come,” so I did. He was a very good persuader.

We have some of his slides in the show — Cajal’s slides that were in Edward Perl’s collection.

That’s the most exciting piece for me. We didn’t have them at any of the other sites. Those are really very precious.

It’s extraordinary that they were already here in Chapel Hill.

I didn’t remember them when we put the exhibit together. I might not even have known about them, though maybe there was something in my training — those fragments of conversation when you’re young don’t always come back when you’re older. The Cajal Institute for many years would give things away to visiting scientists. All of these drawings had been stored in drawers in a closet for decades, and the material is precious historically and from the point of view of the field. But they didn’t have money for honoraria, so that’s what the Cajal Institute would use — Cajal’s slides or other materials. It became its own currency.

Tell me about your involvement in The Beautiful Brain. How did the exhibition get started?

The exhibition got started because Alfonso Araque, who had worked at the Cajal Institute, joined our faculty in Minnesota. He knew where the Cajal drawings were, he knew they were not displayed, he knew how precious they were to the field, and he knew how artistic they were, because he’d seen them himself in person regularly. He went to another colleague, Eric Newman, who came for the opening [of The Beautiful Brain at the Ackland]; Eric has connections to the art world in Minneapolis-St. Paul. His father was a nationally noted portrait photographer. Alfonso and Eric went to Lyndel King, who is the director of the Weisman Art Museum, and showed her some of the published drawings in various books. Immediately she wanted to do the exhibit. They decided they were going to put the exhibit in a historical context. So they went to the History of Medicine Library to have the librarians pull appropriate anatomical drawings of the brain prior to Cajal.

Then they decided that they also wanted to show contemporary neuroscience, and they came to me, because I do a lot of public communication of neuroscience. I was asked to do the contemporary side. At the same time, we all began to work on everything together. We formed a really close team, and that part was just as exciting as anything else: working together with Lyndel and her staff at the Weisman to communicate the neuroscience and the art of Cajal. The exhibit had this dual purpose that has blended so perfectly in all of the different sites. It’s been really exciting to see how the exhibit has been received.

Did you imagine that it would be so successful? When the Ackland is open, there are always people in the exhibition, our tours are very popular, and our public programs, many of which have been organized in collaboration with the UNC Neuroscience Center, are always full.

We had no idea how it would play in the art world. Brains usually draw attention because everybody has one, and everybody wants to know how it works inside themselves. So there’s always something personal about a brain exhibition. One or two of Cajal’s drawings had been displayed publicly in different galleries, one at the Tate, and one or two at a gallery in Istanbul, and then there’s a set of six on display at the NIH (National Institutes of Health), but you can’t get to those because the NIH campus is closed, so that’s not really a public display site. We knew there was an audience, but we had no idea how large. His works had never been displayed in a museum setting, or even as a body of work together. Scientifically, all of his works are published, and you have some volumes of the published work on display, but an art museum is a whole new venue for him. Considering his original desire to become an artist as a young man, I think it brings Cajal full circle. It’s very, very exciting. The galleries have been full everywhere. Part of the learning process for me in helping put together the exhibit was to see how all the different sites reinterpret it. I’ve been to all the locations. It’s just so exciting!

 

 

Take a New Look at the Permanent Collection Galleries

If you have been to the Museum in the past two weeks, you will have noticed that some of the galleries are closed. That is because, for the first time since 2011, we are reinstalling our permanent collection galleries. Ackland staff have already begun reconfiguring the galleries by tearing down and building walls and researching and writing new interpretive materials for the reopening of the galleries on Saturday, December 1, 2018.

While reinstallations like the one we are undertaking are not uncommon for a museum, our curatorial staff has identified three areas of focus:

Focus One – Art After 1950

While many of our special exhibitions include artworks after 1950, the Museum feels strongly that there should be a dedicated space for these works in the permanent collection galleries. Two works included in the new installation are George Segal’s The Legend of Lot and Nam June Paik’s Eagle Eye. Segal’s piece was shown in the Ackland’s 2008 exhibition Circa 1958, which celebrated the Ackland’s fiftieth anniversary. Featured in the Ackland’s 2015 exhibition Testing, Testing, Paik’s Eagle Eye was inspired by an eye chart in an antique store.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Focus Two – African Art

African art is becoming a major programmatic emphasis at the Museum. This is due in no small part to the strength of the Art History Department and the increasing number of graduate students at UNC-Chapel Hill in this field, as well as some special acquisition opportunities. The reinstallation will offer much more space and prominence to our African art collection.  It will also have a special wall for temporary installations with loans from private collections. The first special installation will display a group of Nigerian Ikenga figures from the distinguished collection of Rhonda Wilkerson, a former UNC professor.

Focus Three – Works on Paper

Of the Museum’s 18,000 works of art, the majority are works on paper. The reinstallation will offer a more flexible space for works on paper. Currently, the Museum features a rotating series of installations titled Focus on the Peck Collection, which highlights works from the 2017-Peck gift along with other works in the permanent collection.  The reinstallation will also allow the Museum to include rotating installations of prints, drawings, and photographs for European and American art from about 1900 to the present.  Not only is this an opportunity to display work of art that have not been on view frequently; it is also an opportunity to highlight our conservation efforts. An example of this can be seen in Charles-François Daubigny’s Pond at Corbigny (L’Etang de Corbigny). Look closely at the differences in the colors and richness of details in the below images.

 

 

 

 

Our hope in reinstalling the permanent collection galleries is that you will reexamine old gems in new contexts, reimagine our collection strengths, and discover new favorites that encourage you to look close and think far.

Image credits

Art after 1950
George Segal, American, 1924 – 2000: The Legend of Lot, 1958; plaster, wood, burlap, chicken wire and oil on canvas. Other (figure): (182.9 cm). Other (canvas): 182.9 x 243.8 cm, installation: 188 x 243.8 x 167.6 cm. The William A. Whitaker Foundation Art Fund and Gift of The George and Helen Segal Foundation, Inc. 2009.1
Nam June Paik, South Korean, active in the United States, 1932-20: Eagle Eye, 1996; antique slide projector, aluminum, computer keyboards, eye chart, neon, 9 five-inch televisions, 2 nine-inch televisions, dvd player, dvd, 169.4 x 219.4 x 62.2 cm. Ackland Fund, 99.8

African art
Unidentified artist, South Africa, Zulu culture: Purse, 19th century; beads and reeds. Ackland Fund and Gift of Norma Canelas Roth and William Roth, 2017.19.62017.19.14

Works on paper
Jean Restout, French, 1692-1768: Christ at the Pool of Bethesda, c. 1725; oil on canvas, 99.7 x 122.2 cm. Ackland Fund, 87.31.36
Charles-François Daubigny, French, 1817-1878: Pond at Corbigny (L’Etang de Corbigny), n.d.; Oil on canvas, Canvas: 31.1 X 74.6 cm, Frame: 47 x 90.2 cm. Bequest of Charles and Isabel Eaton, 2009.31.36

Teaching with Birthday Presents

By Jenny Marvel, Head of K12 and Community Programs, Ackland Art Museum

Genius is looking at things in an unhabitual way.
Work in areas where you are unsure, in places you’ve not been before.
Corita Kent[1]

I love the work that I do in the Ackland’s education department, especially learning about specific works of art, artists, and art-making techniques and then finding ways to share this information with others—whether with our volunteer docents, K12 students and teachers, or community groups visiting the Museum. Often, I find inspiration from one or two pieces within an exhibition, and our current show, Birthday Presents, is no exception! This exhibition showcases major works of art that have been donated or promised by generous friends and supporters, specifically honoring the Museum’s sixtieth anniversary.

Over the past month, I’ve been reading about an artist that I did not know much about, Sister Corita Kent (American, 1918 – 1986). Corita was an artist, educator, and advocate for social justice. At eighteen, she entered the Immaculate Heart of Mary religious order, eventually teaching in the art department at Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles for twenty-seven years (1941 – 1968). Often including advertising images, song lyrics, and literature, her prints of the 1960s reflect the Pop Art style.

Although I enjoy her art, I am most inspired by Corita’s teaching philosophy on how to see and experience the world. After reading Learning by Heart: Teachings to Free the Creative Spirit, which details the teaching methods developed by Corita Kent and her mentor, Sister Magdalen Mary at Immaculate Heart College in the 1950s and 60s, I found many similarities to my own personal life/work philosophy. I was also pleasantly surprised that many of her close looking and creative thinking “assignments” for her students echo gallery experiences that we currently use in the Museum!

She encouraged students to slow down, make close and careful observations of the world around them, and draw. She had them use a viewfinder, a small handheld tool with a square cut out, to see their environment through a new perspective—for she wanted the students to develop what she termed their “seeing muscles.”  According to Corita, using a viewfinder “helps us take things out of context, allows us to see for the sake of seeing, and enhances our quick-looking and decision-making skills…You can then view life without being distracted by content. You can make visual decisions—in fact, they are made for you.”[2]

Now it’s time to put your “seeing muscles” to work! Try making your own viewfinder by cutting a rectangular hole out of a heavy piece of paper or cardboard. Hold the viewfinder in one hand and look closely at the details of an object (a shoe, a tree, a car, etc.). What details become more noticeable with your viewfinder? This tool, like a magnifying glass, can be used to see individual parts of a whole object. Go and explore the natural world or use inside at home or at the Ackland Art Museum!

As I wrap up this post, I wanted to leave you with another looking assignment found in Learning by Heart. This one encourages the viewer to spend time looking closely and making detailed observation notes. Good luck and enjoy!

Looking Assignment: Nothing is the Same

When we give names to things, we often assume that everything that goes by that name is alike.

Take something in nature—two dandelions—and look at them for five minutes. List how they are different from each other. Take two leaves from the same tree and do the same thing. Take two peas from the same pod and do the same thing. Nothing is the same. No thing is the same. Everything is itself and one of a kind.

After doing this for a week, look back at these pairs of things again and make a new list. You will find more differences because you have been exercising your powers of observation.

Jenny Marvel, the Head of School and Community Programs at the Ackland Art Museum, UNC-Chapel Hill, earned a BA in Art History at the University of North Texas (1998) and an MA in Historical Administration from Eastern Illinois University in 2001. Previous to her employment at the Ackland Art Museum, Jenny worked in a variety of education departments including The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, The Museum of Flight (Seattle, WA), and the Dallas Museum of Art. Jenny’s experience includes developing, implementing, and assessing school and community tours, online resource materials for students and teachers, and cross-cultural and interdisciplinary teacher workshops.

[1] Kent, Corita and Jan Steward. Learning by Heart: Teachings to Free the Creative Spirit. (New York: Allworth Press, 2008), 21.
[2] Ibid, 26.
Corita Kent (American, 1918 – 1986); Made for Each Other, 1969; offset lithograph reproduction of a 1967 screenprint; Ackland Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Gift of William A. Koehnline in honor of the Museum’s 60th Anniversary, 2018.27

Reintroducing Ackland Upstairs

By Elizabeth Manekin, Head of University Programs & Academic Projects, Ackland Art Museum

Ackland Upstairs is a space where the University community and broader public can come together and ask questions about art. Formerly called the Study Gallery, Ackland Upstairs displays works of art that directly engage with learning objectives of courses at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Students and faculty from diverse disciplines investigate research questions using the works on view here, whether in class sessions held in the gallery or through individual study. In each of the gallery’s six sections, there is brief information about the course and its approach to the art on view. There is also a question posed for the students’—and your – consideration.

While the function of the space has not changed for the courses that shape its content, the change in title reflects a deeper shift in how we hope to engage the public. The questions that frame the University class visits are amplified on the walls of each installation for all to see. From “What is a line and what does it do?” to “In what ways can art be both modern and traditional?” these questions prompt us to consider what art is, what it does, and how it fits in to our experience and understanding of the world. Big questions.

I am particularly excited about this shift, and look forward to experimenting with different approaches in Ackland Upstairs. University museums are uniquely poised to have dynamic and interdisciplinary conversations about art. We do that in our teaching all the time and public programs, which are ephemeral; if you aren’t present for the discussion you miss it entirely. How do we engage members of the public in these discussions through our physical display?

Ackland Upstairs can be a laboratory to think through those ideas with students, faculty, and members of the community. Right now, that means there are questions on the walls. Next semester, it might mean something different. It rotates every eight weeks, so there is always something new to see and think about. The next round of installations goes on view October 17th. Come and see what’s Upstairs!

Two Louise Bourgeois Sculptures Welcomed To Campus On Loan

By: Barbara Wiedemann

On August 7, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill received two works by groundbreaking French-American artist Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010) two weeks before just over 5,000 first-year and transfer students were welcomed to campus to begin class.

Crouching Spider (2003) is on loan from the collection of The Easton Foundation, a nonprofit organization which Bourgeois established long before she died in New York City, her home for over 70 years. The artist’s looming yet delicate spider — made with over 4,000 pounds of bronze and stainless steel — is a powerful presence amongst the trees in front of New West building, its eight legs stretching delicately across 30′ of grassy space. Last seen in Copenhagen and Shanghai, the sculpture is well-positioned to greet anyone walking or driving by on Cameron Avenue.

“It’s weird. It’s fantastic. It’s wonderful and disconcerting at the same time,” Cary Levine, an associate professor of contemporary art, told the Daily Tar Heel. His hope is that encountering art up-close and in such an accessible space will provoke inquiry and exploration.

Those digging deeper may learn that Bourgeois’ work was often highly autobiographical. She sometimes spoke of her spider sculptures as maternal and protective forces, the spinning spider an ode to her mother, a weaver who repaired tapestries during the artist’s childhood in France. Through art, Bourgeois wrestled with her own emotions, memories and unconscious in a way that can call out a visceral response in the viewer.

Eye Benches I (1996–97), a pair of black granite sculptures smooth and inviting to the touch, have eye-shaped forms that also function as benches. In front of Phillips Hall within shouting distance of Crouching Spider, the pair is on loan from the Louise Bourgeois Trust. The surreal eyes look back at passers-by on Cameron Avenue.

Bourgeois said of the benches: “There is a pleasure in sitting outside and watching people walk by. You look at them, and sometimes they look back at you. These encounters and perceptions interest me. In this sense, the Eye Benches relate to the story of the voyeur.”

While Crouching Spider is off limits to the touch, passers-by are encouraged to sit on the Eye Benches I and spend time contemplating the intentions of an influential artist whose vulnerability and ability to plumb psychological depths, it could be argued, was her strength.

Visiting the benches on campus, the Ackland Art Museum’s Peter Nisbet, deputy director for curatorial affairs, observed “Like scattered, massively heavy fragments of some sleek modern Sphinx, these eyes rise from the earth, fixing the world with a disconcerting stare. You — soft, fragile and finite — can sit on the bench and look in one direction, while the hard, eternal eyes gaze implacably elsewhere. Comfort and discomfort, simultaneously.”

The  Bourgeois loans came to Carolina in part due to the generous support and leadership of alumnus James Keith (JK) Brown, current chair of the Carolina Arts Leadership Council and former chair of the Ackland Art Museum national Advisory Board.

TBT – A decade of exhibitions

The Ackland will celebrate its 60th anniversary this fall and though we’ve been thinking (extensively!) about the future, we couldn’t help but take a quick look back at where we’ve been; we’ve had no shortage of stunning exhibitions throughout our history and we couldn’t be prouder!

Testing Testing: Painting and Sculpture since 1960 from the Permanent Collection
17 July 2015  3 January 2016

Testing Testing showed how art made since 1960 tested possibilities both within and beyond conventional boundaries of art making. Artists used experimentation, innovation, and skill to assess new materials in different combinations while also pushing the envelope of traditional modes, such as figuration and abstraction.

This exhibition presented the Ackland’s largest (and relatively unknown) collection of modern painting and sculpture to date, featuring works by approximately 50 artists such as José Bedia, Sanford Biggers, Anthony Caro, Carlos Cruz-Diez, Thornton Dial, Barkley Hendricks, Rachel Howard, Annette Lemieux, Al Held, Hung Liu (below), Takashi Murakami, Kenneth Noland, Richard Nonas, Jules Olitski, Tony Oursler, Nam June Paik, Philip Pearlstein, Ken Price, Sean Scully, George Segal, Yinka Shonibare, Lorna Simpson, Do-Ho Suh, Stella Waitzkin, John Wesley, and H.C. Westermann.

Genius and Grace: François Boucher and the Generation of 1700
23 January 2015 5 April 2015

Genius and Grace presented exemplary drawings by 27 accomplished artists who influenced the practices of art and draftsmanship for much of the eighteenth century. Their vision, combined with their enormous technical skill, ensured the full realization of the rococo — the bold, graceful, and fluid manner so characteristic of French art of the first half of the eighteenth century. The brilliant career of François Boucher, the best-known artist of his generation, was represented in the show by 19 drawings. Other artists featured in the exhibition included Jean-Antoine Watteau, Jean-Baptiste Oudry, Charles-Joseph Natoire, Charles-Antoine Coypel, and Carle Vanloo.

 

In Pursuit of Strangeness: Wyeth and Westermann in Dialogue
14 June 2013  25 August 2013

Through works by Andrew Wyeth and H.C. Westermann, In Pursuit of Strangeness explored diverse responses in American art to the uncanny home, as well as domestic architecture’s role in defining the boundaries between ourselves and the outside world.

Dating from the early twentieth century to the present, the works exemplified the complexities of our relationship to home and place through unsettling perspectives and unusual materials, subverting the understanding of home as familiar (heimlich) and transforming it into something foreign (unheimlich). The exhibition also investigated the difference between a house and a home, as well as how homes become extensions of their inhabitants. In addition to Wyeth and Westermann, other artists in the show included Ralph Gibson, Marilyn Anne Levine, Bruce Nauman, Aaron Siskind, and Minor White, among others.

Catch and Release: Seafood Imagery from the Ackland Art Museum and the North Carolina Museum of Art
26 September 2012  4 November 2012

Catch and Release considered how various cultures throughout history have used and understood seafood. It was the culmination of the new Joan and Robert Huntley Art History Scholarship for graduate students at UNC-Chapel Hill, which supported collaboration between the Ackland and the North Carolina Museum of Art. In keeping with the goals of the Scholarship, this exhibition aimed to unite objects from both collections in a way that was unique to the two museums.

 

Big Shots: Andy Warhol Polaroids
2 October 2010  2 January 2011

Best known as a painter and filmmaker, Andy Warhol was also a prolific photographer. Bringing together moments of his art, work, and life, and considering them as the intertwined parts of an artistic whole, Big Shots included approximately 250 Polaroids and 70 gelatin silver black-and-white prints taken by Warhol between 1970 and 1987. The exhibition presented a multitude of images Warhol accumulated as part of his creative process against black-and-white snapshots captured during leisure time. Seen together, this critical mass of photos allowed for exceptional glimpses into Warhol’s working methods, as well as his personal perspective on the New York “scene” of the ’70s and ’80s.

Circa 1958: Breaking Ground in American Art
21 September 2008  4 January 2009

1958 was a remarkable year: it was a time of transition and experimentation in American art and culture, and for the United States, a time of unbridled optimism yet one of uncertainty. The country was experiencing an unprecedented rate of economic growth, prosperity, and international leadership following World War II but at the same time, world events offered sobering reminders of the fragility of peace and the prevalence of the Cold War. It was during this time that Khrushchev became Premier of the Soviet Union and President Eisenhower established NASA thus launching the space race. Worldwide concern for the possibility of nuclear annihilation resulted in the establishment of the international peace movement. Across the country, a growing awareness of discrimination and social unrest would bring about the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Rights Movement in the 1960s.

Circa 1958 explored two vastly different trends that emerged in and around 1958, post-painterly abstraction and assemblage. In each case, the artists presented very new and entirely different approaches to art making. Together, these two trends laid the groundwork for much of the American art that came to define the second half of the twentieth century.

 

Hung Liu, American, born in China, born 1948: Peaches, 2002; oil on canvas. Ackland Fund, 2002.7. © 2002 Hung Liu.
François Boucher, Recumbent Female Nude (detail), circa 1742-43; red, white, and black chalk on cream antique laid paper, 26 x 35.2 cm. The Horvitz Collection, Boston.
Andrew Wyeth, American, 1917-2009: Weatherside, 1965; tempera. North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, Promised Gift of Ann and Jim Goodnight, © Andrew Wyeth.
Andy Warhol, American, 1928-1987; Bianca Jagger, 1979; Polacolor Type 108, 4 1/4 x 3 3/8 in. (10.8 x 8.57 cm); Gift of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, 2008.24.13
Kenneth Noland, American, 1924-2010; That, 1958-59; oil on canvas, 83 x 83 x 1 3/4 in. (210.82 x 210.82 x 4.45 cm); Collection of David Mirvish, Toronto, L2008.53. Art © Kenneth Noland/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Painting with Dust

By: Franny Brock, Ackland Graduate Intern 2017-18, Ackland Art Museum

Léon-Pascal de Glain, French, 1715-1775, Young Woman in a Blue Dress with Muff, 1745

As a specialist of eighteenth-century French art, my job has been particularly exciting and rewarding this semester because of the Ackland’s new exhibition, Becoming a Woman in the Age of Enlightenment: French Art from the Horvitz Collection. This installation epitomizes so many of my research interests, including the work of women artists, collectors and collecting, drawing techniques, amateurism, and display of works on paper. Some of my favorite pieces in the exhibition—the ones that I keep returning to over and over again—are the pastel portraits. The velvety texture and rich colors of these works drew me in immediately, but their contradictory classification and contested status in the eighteenth century keeps me coming back for more.

From a curatorial perspective, chalk pastel is fascinating because it occupies a place somewhere between painting and drawing. In the eighteenth century, pastels were considered a form of painting, comparable to oil. In 1701, Joseph Vivien (1657–1734) was the first artist accepted to the French Académie as a “painter in pastel.” The vibrant colors, high degree of finish, and size of pastels make them similar to paintings. However, works in pastel are done on paper and are extremely fragile. Like drawings, pastels are light sensitive and need to be stored in the dark most of the time (which makes it even more thrilling that we have eight on view at the Ackland right now). Anyone who has worked with chalk pastels knows that keeping the medium adhered to the paper is also a problem. Pastel is crumbly and dusty; it wants to lift off its support, especially when moved or jostled. Many strategies for fixing pastel to paper were invented in the eighteenth century.

Chalk pastel is made of powdered pigment and a binder, such as gum arabic, then formed into sticks. These pastel sticks can be applied directly to paper as a dry medium or mixed with water and applied with a brush. Pastel became popular in eighteenth-century France, especially for portraiture, because of its ability to mimic the tones and texture of skin, hair, and clothing. Gault de Saint-Germain’s Portrait of a Boy demonstrates how different colors of pastel were blended or “stumped” (sometimes also called “sweetened”) to create the luminous skin of the young man’s face. The powdery surface of this work reflects diffuse light off the facets of tiny particles of pigment, creating a sense of white light and a velvety texture.

Anna Gault De Saint-Germain, Polish, c. 1760-1832, Portrait of a Boy, 1788

Although both men and women artists used pastel, the medium came to be considered “feminine” because it relied on surface attributes such as color and shading, rather than the more masculine-associated line and structure, to define subject matter. Social critics also linked pastel to women’s cosmetics because of its physical similarity to powered rouge. While there was wide popular appeal for pastels in eighteenth-century France, this comparison emphasized the perceived artificiality and delicacy of the medium in the minds of its critics.

The pastel works in Becoming a Woman in the Age of Enlightenment show a range of techniques, including blending and the use of mixed media, and because they were never varnished, these pieces have retained their original brilliance. I encourage you to take the opportunity to view these pastels before they return to the dark to rest.