Look, Write, and Draw! A Learning Activity to Try at Home

The Ackland’s Education and Interpretation team has been working hard during the Museum to bring many of their learning resources online for families to try at home. The following post includes the text of a new activity packet, Look, Write, Draw! Click here to download the printable packet with art images included.

If you’d like to discover more museum resources from around the web, check out this compilation of our favorites.

Look, Write, and Draw!

The more you look, the more you see.  As we look closely at works of art, we develop skills and vocabulary to describe our observations, and by using the visual clues in the work and our prior knowledge, we interpret what we see and make meaning.  By examining works of art in detail, we gain an appreciation for their visual qualities and see the world differently.

The following close looking, writing, and drawing activities will help your student or child learn to observe, interpret, and reflect upon what they see. Each activity can be modified per age or grade level and can be done individually, or with a classmate or family member.

To get started, select an image of any work of art from the Ackland Art Museum or from museum collections around the world.

Suggested works of art from the Ackland Art Museum

Suggested resources for works of art from other museum collections

Google Arts & Culture provides online access to works of art, collections, and stories from over 2,000 cultural institutions from around the world.

  • Explore collections from different museums and archives
  • Zoom in on details with Art Camera
  • Search for works of art by theme, color, or keyword, such as “dog”.

For those interested in researching information about artists, art making techniques, art movements, and world cultures, consider exploring UNC-Chapel Hill’s Ackland Library Guide, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline, or the free art history courses through Khan Academy.

Looking for more?

If you are looking for specific works of art, web resources, or ideas to assist in your teaching, please email acklandlearn@unc.edu.


Focusing on Art

Look closely and carefully at a work of art of your choice and answer the following questions.

  • What is the first thing you notice about this work of art? Why does this stand out to you?
  • Describe your reaction to this work of art.
  • Give one or two words that describe the mood of this work of art. Why did you choose those words?
  • Make up a title for this work of art. Why did you choose that title?

See – Think – Wonder

A fantastic routine to use with any work of art!

  1. What do you see? Take time to look closely.  I see . . .
  2. What do you think is happening in this work of art?  I think . . .
  3. What do you wonder about this work of art?  I wonder . . .

To go even deeper into your exploration, consider researching the artist, the artist’s techniques, and finding other works of art created by the artist!

Timed Looking

Set a timer for two minutes. Look closely at a work of art and write down everything that you see in the image.

  • What was the first thing that you noticed?
  • How did the artist make some parts more noticeable than others?
  • What does this tell us about the work of art?

Look at the work of art again.

  • Is there anything else to see that you didn’t notice in the first two minutes?
  • What would the work of art be like without _____________?  (Try using your thumb to block out this part from view.)
  • Based on what you see, what do you think this work of art is about?

Looking for Details

Take a sheet of paper and roll it into a tube or cut a small square out of a heavy piece of paper or cardboard. You now have a “viewfinder” that can help you with looking 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, the inside of your home, or look closely at images of art!


Perspective Writing

Choose a work of art and write from the perspective of a person or object in the image. Consider the following: What are you thinking? What do you see and hear from where you are in this place? What relationship do you have with other things or people near you? What does a normal day look like for you? Share your writing with an adult and ask them to share their perspective of the work of art.


When we slow down to look at works of art, our eyes and our brains are able to take in more visual information. Spend ten minutes looking closely at one work of art and complete the following on a blank sheet of paper:

  • Create a list of what you see.
  • Make a sketch of the work of art.
  • Write down questions you have about the work of art.
  • Write down what you like about this work of art.
  • Write down how this work of art makes you feel.

Wish You Were Here…

Choose an image of a landscape that you wish you could visit. On a large blank index card, imagine that you are there and write a postcard to a friend or relative persuading them to come and visit this location. Describe what you see around you, what you smell, hear, and feel, and what you can do for fun in this place. When you are done, sketch the image on the blank side.

Pictures into Words

Look closely at a landscape or image with people in it and respond to the following. What is happening? How would you describe this to someone who is not here? Make a list of all of the things you see in the work of art.

Using your imagination, write a short story based upon what you see.


Words into Pictures

Read or listen to a story and illustrate (draw) what you think is the most important part of the story using colored pencils, crayons, or other drawing materials. Share your drawing with your teacher or family member.

For a more in-depth experience, choose a Greek/Roman myth, Japanese or Chinese folktale, or religious story to illustrate and look for ways artists across time and place chose to illustrate the stories in paintings, drawings, and sculptures. To help get you started, read or listen to the short story The Sword of Damocles originally written by Cicero (Roman, 106 – 43 BCE), create your own illustration, and then compare with the Ackland’s Sword of Damocles (1812) by the British painter, Richard Westall.

Imagination Sketches

Find a work of art that shows a person in it and complete the following…

  • Draw what this person’s home might look like.
  • Draw a vehicle this person might drive.
  • Draw a piece of furniture this person might own.

Remember to look closely and carefully at the artwork for visual clues, such as their clothing or their surroundings, to help you draw.

Drawing the Line

Take a piece of paper and fold it in half widthwise and then fold it again lengthwise. When open, your paper should have 4 visible square quadrants.

Place a three-dimensional object (i.e. shoe, stuffed animal, etc.) on a higher surface, such as a table or countertop, so that you are either looking at it from the side or looking down at the top of the object. Using the drawing exercises below, try drawing the object four different ways, one drawing in each square. Once you have completed this exercise, try drawing another object. Good luck!

  1. Top left quadrant– Sketch a detail of your object.
  2. Top right quadrant– Draw the same detail on the paper WITHOUT lifting your pencil.
  3. Bottom left quadrant – Draw the same detail looking only at the object and not at the paper (without lifting your pencil). This is called a BLIND contour drawing.
  4. Bottom right quadrant – CLOSE YOUR EYES and draw the same detail.

Exploring Cultures through Art

Now it’s your turn to put all of your experiences of looking closely, writing, and sketching together!

Select a 3D object from the Ackland Art Museum’s 3D Sketchfab models  or choose an object from another collection, such as The Research Laboratories of Archaeology at UNC-Chapel Hill or The British Museum. Explore the three-dimensional digital object by using your mouse or touch screen to rotate and zoom in.

Imagine you are an archaeologist, a person who studies human history through the excavation of sites and the analysis of artifacts and other physical remains. You are looking for materials of past human life and activities (such as tools, pottery, jewelry, art, etc.) and have discovered this object. Using the following questions, record and interpret the visual clues of the object to learn about a different culture.

  1. Visual characteristics: Look closely at all sides of the object (front, back, left, right, top and bottom). Describe the color, shape, and texture.
  2. Material: What material is the object made from? Describe what clues you see.
  3. Function: What might this object have been used for? Who might have used it? Where might it have been used?
  4. Sketch the object: Sketch the object from three different angles.
  5. Draw conclusions: What does the object tell us about the culture it came from? Consider what clues it tells you about the people, their customs, technology, belief systems, and daily life.


Click here to download the printable Look, Write, Draw packet.

Photo by Megan Kerns Photography.

“Lost and Found” Early Bird Winner!

This Friday, the Ackland opens Lost and Found: Stories for Vernacular Photographs, a special exhibition featuring a story and caption contest.

Ahead of its opening, the Ackland circulated twenty photographs from the exhibition online via our website, social media, and e-news, and asked for creative responses to these images. All part of a public caption and short story contest with prizes available, those creative responses will be on display in the galleries alongside the photographs. Once open, the exhibition will also invite visitors to continue to submit, display, and compete for prizes through January 5.

Submissions have run the gamut from witty remarks to social commentary to delineated responses in the tradition of ekphrasis (the use of detailed description of a work of visual art as a literary device). The hope is that these photographs find a new life by stimulating our collective storytelling imagination!

Congratulations to Bill McCormick, the early bird grand prize winner of our story and caption contest for Lost and Found: Stories for Vernacular Photographs! 

Here is his winning submission in response to photo 17.

woman looks at her reflection in a mirror

Year One
We moved in, I unpacked a trunk, and there was the mirror. Norbert had put it way down at the bottom under a flatiron. I tried to pick it up, and it shattered right there in my hands. I nearly lost a finger.

Year Two
Norbert twisted his ankle at the grocery store and knocked into a stack of apple juice in glass jars. They said we couldn’t come back until we’d paid for every last one. His shoes stayed sticky until they wore out.

Year Three
The church we went to burned down, but it wasn’t because I was smoking after choir practice.

Year Four
Norbert lost three teeth when a mule kicked him. The mule ran away. It still hasn’t come back.

Year Five
We thought things were looking up because we’d finally paid off the grocery store, my finger was fully healed, and the church had reopened. We went to the first service in the new building, but when we got home, all our furniture was gone.

Year Six
We went to a family reunion at my Aunt Blanche’s, and she had all our furniture. She said we just have similar taste, and that’s definitely not true.

Year Seven
Norbert lost his job, and I agreed to let people take my picture in a see-through nightgown to make ends meet.

Year Eight
We got a new mirror. Our bad luck is over, but I’m not giving up my nightgown modeling gig.


Unidentified artist, American, Woman and Mirror, 1940s, gelatin silver print, 4 1/2 × 2 3/4 in. (11.4 × 7 cm). Ackland Art Museum, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Ackland Fund, 2017.24.7.

Zoom: The Ackland’s New Graphic Identity

The Ackland Art Museum has a mission: to become the pre-eminent public university art museum. We believe this is an eminently possible goal to attain. We aim to engage everyone in the community and beyond, serving UNC students, staff, faculty, and alumni through teaching and research. We have an encyclopedic collection of over 19,000 works of art, the support of one of the nation’s top public universities, and a local community that is deeply engaged with the arts.

On October 5, 2019, we took a major step toward our goal by unveiling a new graphic identity. Our new look, Zoom, is strong and declarative. It changes focus, challenges the expected, and exudes motion and energy. Our signature color, Ackland Fuchsia, is vibrant and unique. Our logo asserts itself boldly and dynamically on print and digital media, and is sometimes even animated (see the animation on our new lobby screen!). The Ackland “A” curves gently at the top, echoing the archway over our front door.

We were honored to have so many of our patrons join us for the October 5 Zoom In! event. Now, we look forward sharing our new look with the rest of our many community supporters. You’ll see it in the Ackland’s lobby and on our print and digital media from here on out, and we will launch a new website in January, 2020.  Thank you for seeing us through 60 years of growth, and we can’t want to share all that’s next with you!


Ackland Director Katie Ziglar Discusses Recent Acquisitions of Islamic Art

The Ackland recently acquired seven new works of Islamic art. Since the Museum’s director, Katie Ziglar (UNC ’79), is an expert in Islamic art and architecture, we asked her about the new acquisitions.



Why is this collection of objects so important to the Ackland?

The Ackland, as a “mini-encyclopedic” museum, has breadth and depth in many areas.  It is not, however, complete.  We are strategically adding to our Islamic art collection in order to more fully tell the story of the 9th to 18th centuries.  Included in our selection are objects from the Arab world, Iran, Turkey, and India.  These acquisitions strengthen our capacity to teach a part of art history that is often overlooked. One of the first things visitors will learn is that Islamic art is breathtakingly beautiful.


Tell us about your personal connection to Islamic art.

I took my first course in Islamic art here at Carolina with visiting Columbia University art history professor Jerrilyn Dodds.  As a European History major, I had not yet been exposed to the interplay between Europe, the Middle East, and the Far East. Professor Dodds’ course grabbed my attention in a way that forever changed my life.

Two years later, I enrolled in the MA program in Islamic art and architecture at the American University in Cairo where I wrote my thesis on Fatimid lusterware of Egypt and Syria in the 10th to the 12th centuries.


There is a range of media here. Is that typical of Islamic art?

Good question!  Islamic art is expressed in a number of media, not unlike medieval Christian art.  The calligraphy that makes copying the Qur’an possible is the most important form of Islamic art; after that, there is basically no medium that is more or less important than any other. Painting, metal, textiles, ceramic, wood, glass, ivory and bone and architectural elements are all considered equally important.


Recent Acquisitions of Islamic Art will be on view in Gallery 2 until February 2, 2020. Click here to learn more. 


Photo of Katie Ziglar by Jeyhoun Allebaugh, UNC-Chapel Hill

Unidentified artist, Safavid, Iranian, 16th century, Alam, steel, 22 5/8 x 13 in. (57.5 x 33 cm). Ackland Art Museum, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Gift of the William E. Shipp Estate, by exchange, 2019.31.2.

Artists Jason Woodberry and Marcus Kiser talk about “Project LHAXX”

A mural of imagined Afrofuturist hieroglyphics and neon symbols inspired by the artists’ cultural traditions floats against a stark black background. Alongside, a monitor depicts spaceship schematics inspired by the forms of ceremonial masks found in the Dogon culture of West Africa. The artists unlock Project LHAXX’s “cosmic message” for viewers through content accessed via a free augmented reality application. The resulting immersive experience invites us to consider both the forces in society that allow for the absence and erasure of Black cultural histories and also ways in which those losses may be mitigated.

Project LHAXX takes its inspiration from Henrietta Lacks (1920–1951), a young African-American tobacco farmer who sought treatment for cervical cancer at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951. Unknown to Lacks, who eventually succumbed to her disease, her cells were saved and studied by researchers, who found that her cells were the first “immortal” cell line that could reproduce indefinitely. They were utilized in countless research applications, being especially noted for helping to develop the polio vaccine. Lacks’ story feeds into Intergalactic Soul’s larger Afrofuturist goal: using history to imagine a future with black people actively involved and respected.

We talked to artists Marcus Kiser and Jason Woodberry about their new installation.

What are the sources of inspiration for Project LHAXX?

JW: LHAXX has a couple of inspirations that contributed to its creation.  One is that African Americans are one of the only groups of people in America without a native language. This bothered me in a way. By using information from my ancestry, I created a text that acts as a “what if?” encased in an Afrofuturistic theme.

Another is Henrietta Lacks, whose last name inspired the title. I just felt the XX was a cool aesthetic; you see it used a lot in old 80s and 90s sci-fi movies and video games referring to the future. Her story is one that everyone should know about and I hope our narrative will help bring awareness to who she is and what all her family has been through.

The color selection — black and gold — was inspired by the antagonist of Marvel’s Black Panther, Eric Killmonger.

What is Intergalactic Soul?

JW: Intergalactic Soul is an ongoing collection of multimedia, Afrofuturistic art that focuses on social and political issues surrounding black bodies. The narrative centers around two young black astronauts by the name of Pluto and Astro who travel throughout the universe and are confronted with a number of issues and evils, represented metaphorically through characters and scenarios.

Talk about what Afrofuturism and outer space mean to you.

MK: Afrofuturism for us revolves around the idea of black people and black spaces in the future. This idea of black futures that stems from oppression and racial ideologies of the past. Our work speaks for a future that acknowledges lost voices, underserved and forgotten people. Space represents untapped freedom and an unknown feeling of blissfulness, he religious ideologies of Heaven(s), or the infinite.

What can visitors to the Ackland expect at your 2nd Friday ArtWalk event on September 13 at 6PM?

JW: Great music and great conversation.  We aim for art talks to be more like conversation amongst the people in the room. We will talk about everything from 80s cartoons, to video games, to comics, all while addressing things that are happening in our communities and how art plays a huge part in the narrative of it all. Q and the Soul Providers never disappoint. An Afrofuturistic Jazz/Soul freestyle fusion, littered with clever punchlines and spoken word, all inspired by the art of Intergalactic Soul. It won’t be like any other ArtWalk they’ve been to.

 This program is supported by the Orange County Arts Commission.


Project LHAXX is on view at the Ackland through June, 2020.

Image credit: Image of Project LHAXX courtesy of Marcus Kiser.

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