Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Ventral Tegmentum in Love

I was thinking about one particular item on my 30 before 30 list - to put together a collection of photographs - and about how what I really wanted to accomplish was to have something I made be showcased. Photographs are great, and one day, I might even put all of the ridiculously expensive photography courses I took to use, but to have something exhibited would undoubtedly be much more challenging. I figured it would push me out of my writing-infused comfort zone, forcing my ideas to be critiqued by complete strangers, and that idea scared me so much that I knew it belonged on that list more than the photography project did.  There's something addictive about breaking down your ego, plunging into a space where you will likely feel like a douche, as you surrender and let that feeling get all Christian Grey on you (will I ever stop referencing a movie I couldn't even get through?? Like I don't even know what I meant by that..)

A friend of mine is doing his PhD in Neuroscience, and invited me to an annual Society for Neuroscience Art Show held at the Orange Art Gallery in Ottawa, and after checking out their website, I noticed a call for artwork submissions. Looking at the previous years' pieces, I was both overwhelmed and inspired: Ottawa has a lot of talent, and nobody boasts it until you attend one of these events.


I decided to submit a piece anyway, and while I didn't think I would make it in (they did remind us that space is limited so not to get our hopes up too high), I was just excited to attend an art show that was all about the brain. I mean, it was practically guaranteed to be cerebral (*applause*). I've always been interested in motivation and exactly what part of the brain guides what thought and behavior. Or, more generally, the fact that something so tiny in our brain is responsible for a movement of the shoulder, a coy gaze, a forced laugh, a lonely memory, or the flutter of those butterflies when a stranger smiles at us on the metro. As I thought of ideas, I looked at diagrams of the brain and realized that not one of them ever depicted it in a beautiful way, so I decided to start with an aesthetically focused representation of this inevitably grey matter. It would be a watercolor brain, so that each synapse and nerve could seamlessly harmonize with the next.



I chose kraft packaging paper for the base, so that the water would dry to form texture. Then I cut it out and pasted it onto a canvas which I filled with white and pink acrylic paint undertones, then a thin coat of varnish.
And then I thought about the most exciting part of the brain. The most unpredictable, confusing, and elusive part: the part that makes us love. It's called the Ventral Tegmental Area or the Ventral Tegmentum, and it's a group of neurons that are responsible for all those times your heart skips a beat when he or she looks in your eyes. And then I thought about my favorite poet, E.E.Cummings, and how I can barely ever get through his poems without becoming breathless from the intensely palpable, all-consuming pull at my heart with every word.  And so, I came up with the idea to depict the Ventral Tegmentum as the creator of the emotion behind the poetry of this incredible poet. I don't think I can explain it in a different way than how I did when I submitted it, so here is what I sent with my submission:



They say “follow your heart”, but what guides our hearts is a microscopic synapse that happens in the right place at the right time. This phenomenon is what inspired this piece: the idea that a tiny elusive spark in our brain could lead to somebody writing words that can then elicit similar feelings in others. The excerpt is taken from one of my favorite poems, “Love is More Thicker Than Forget”, and speaks to me of the importance of this feeling in our lives. I couldn’t imagine a better poet than E.E. Cummings to conceptualize the marriage of the tangible – the brain – and its most beautiful creation: love.


Oh, and here is the final product, with an excerpt of the poem stemming from the little yellow dot, the Ventral Tegmentum, as its muse.


And this is the part of the poem that's a little tough to read:

"Love is (more) thicker than forget
More thinner than recall
More seldom than a wave is wet
More frequent than to fail"

I can go on a huge tangent about what the words of that lovely poem mean to me, but really all I care about is that they mean something different to each person who reads them. 

Here is the rest of the poem, because it is so breathtaking, but could not all fit onto the canvas:

"it is most mad and moonly
and less it shall unbe
than all the sea which only
is deeper than the sea

love is less always than to win
less never than alive
less bigger than the least begin
less littler than forgive

it is most sane and sunly
and more it cannot die
than all the sky which only
is higher than the sky"

Amazingly, my piece made it into the vernissage (what???) and soon, it was time to check out what the rest of Ottawa is up to, in the world of visual art.  We saw some bubble-blowers:



And a piece that really reminded me of Egon Schiele's work, probably because of the haphazardness of the lines:




And ugh, this is just brilliant. My all-time dream would be to know how to paint like this:



And these pieces could really brighten up a white space...



And here's how it looked altogether:



Oh, and here is my piece, The Ventral Tegmentum in Love:




And here is my friend, The Benisa in Love (with Gucci, for the time being):


Oh, and in case you're wondering, it's really, really nerve-wracking to listen to people discussing your work. Some people would pause and contemplate, while others would immediately dive into discussing their observations, meanwhile..



And at the end of the night, my piece was sold in an auction that donates all proceeds to a local charity. This year's donations were given to Ancoura, a non-profit organization that provides affordable housing and support for individuals with mental health issues. And, not to sound insensitive, but I was really just effing stoked that someone wanted to take my piece home.  I imagine them looking at it now, feeling the same way I felt when I found the right words to describe it, their heart slightly warmer, their brain a shade of raspberry pink.

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