GUEST POST: From forest to neocortex

GUEST POST: From forest to neocortex

Ahead of Your Brain on Art, artist Paula Timm describes the connection between her art, neuroscience, her personal medical journey.

April 20, 2018

A few years ago, while camping, I was captivated by the forest and sat drawing it for hours. I then combined, digitally, the drawing with a photograph of the same forest. Later that year, this finished mixed media art piece was on display at U of C Medical Student fundraiser, titled “Rich Man Poor Man”. A few of the attending Neuroscientists recognized this piece as an illustration of neuronal layering resembling the six layers of the neocortex or the Purkinje cells of the cerebellum.

It was a eureka moment for me!

I was so excited about this collision of making art and neuroscience. It truly was the spark of connecting my passion for art, my health journey, and my connection to science and research. So naturally, when Meagan contacted me, my excitement was palpable!

I was matched with UofC student, Kyle Mayr who studies Ketogenic Diet to Manage Neuropathic Pain in Spinal Cord Injury. As I read more about his project, I thought, “How do I find myself in this research”?

For inspiration, I started scrolling through my photos and then stopped dead in my tracks. I was looking at a photo of myself, six months ago, shuffling down the hallway of the recovery wing at the Foothills McCaig Tower. I was in the hospital for the last surgery to end the collection of my diseased parts. This time, I was fitted with an epidural, and then wham! There was my connection and thus entryway to understanding Kyle’s research.

I have experienced chronic pain (as a result of ulcerative colitis and arthritis) for years, and I have had to find my own way to manage it, long-term, without opioids. As I reflected on this photo, I realized it was exactly my six month anniversary. I was impacted by the span of time as it relates to pain and recovery, acute versus chronic, and the passing of time with a chronic condition. I created an art piece to these visuals and concepts, I shared it with Kyle, and he connected with its nuances immediately. I called this piece “The Chaos of Pain.”

Kyle and I had a great phone conversation connecting his research and my history. He most happily and willingly invited me to visit his labs, meet his colleges and even his boss, Patrick Whelan, at the Foothills Hospital. I was more than excited to be toured through the raw environment of the lab where studies were ongoing and in process! I saw the mini treadmills for mice to run through augmented reality training, I looked into microscopes and saw tiny mice spinal cords and viewed computer screens filled with the beauty of neurons and their latest research. I asked 101 questions and not once did Kyle make me feel that any question was too small or too big to answer.

I oddly connected to the mice and the microscopes in Kyle’s labs. In my time as a patient, I have volunteered my body, case history, cells and tissue, to be a test patient for new treatment plans, drug therapy or classroom teaching. To see the inside of developing drug therapy and non-pharmaceutical pursuits to affect change, was one of the best moments of my life.

In 2000, I was diagnosed with Celiac disease and ulcerative colitis and later with Drug-Induced Lupus due to a reaction to biologic drug therapy. As a patient of two leading Gastroenterologists (first at U of A and later at U of C); I was privy to leading-edge research and care and thus participated in many drug or behaviour studies. In 2011, I underwent the first of three surgeries (to remove the diseased colon) as a result of a long-term illness which no longer responded to drug therapy. A medical event happened during this surgery, and I experienced near death, a medically induced coma, life support and a week in ICU. The recovery had me grappling with a traumatized body and mind which was incorporating a new body now fitted with a permanent ileostomy.

During the past 20 years of managing a complex health story, I have learned a lot about the human condition; our dedication to learning the connection between science and our self-care. The one subject that I can always speak to with the most passion is why did my immune system turn on itself? How can I mitigate further damage to my own body? How can I thrive while still participating 110% in my life?

Art is not the obvious answer to these questions, but in my case, it is where I turned to while resting, healing, and recovering. The art making has both calmed me, given me an activity to pass the time, given me purpose (now pursuing a meaningful career in the arts) and helped me to process the complex feelings of trauma and illness.

I love the push and pull of any subject matter as it relates to art. I also love that I don’t always have to understand the full connection and allow the intrinsic brilliance of my brain and its response to any stimulation such as research of neurons and how they respond to diet, stresses, and art!

After a generous visit and tour with Kyle, as is often with any commission art piece, I made a note of certain visual cues and key themes. I construct a visual in my mind and allow myself days and sometimes weeks to process, in my imagination, the construction of the art piece. My finished works are often mixed media; sometimes a mixture of two-dimensional drawings and paintings, which are scanned digitally and overlaid with other photographic elements, including scenery, more paintings or filtres. The finished piece is sometimes a result of printing this interplay and showing as a final work or further collaged in a two-dimensional piece.

This process or result might not be different from the path I would normally take, however, what is clear to me is that it (the product and process) is becoming more entrenched. My art is a collection of responses, not all completed at the same time but they are there for me. It’s like a resource to utilize and apply when I need more or less. Somewhat like the brain and it’s neurons with its different chemical permutations to throw at the body’s current demands.

I am a current tenant at cSPACE King Edward, the location in which the event will be held. I humbly invite you to visit my studio (on the same floor as our exhibit) to view the aforementioned Neuron Forest and the other The Chaos of Pain.

Neuron Forest, Mixed Media

The Chaos of Pain, Mixed Media

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