Studio Visit with Michelle Hunter: Leaning into the past, present, and future

Michelle Hunter is an artist drawn to exploring the multitude of ways the human brain acts as a catalyst for our everyday lives. Her work asks her audience to pay closer attention to the connection between an person’s actions and the mental processes making them happen. Rather than something entirely unique to an individual, the brain in her work exists in a collective sense, something we all possess, and something that unifies the singular into a plurality. She discussed her work with SCINQ.

Can we start with some background? How long have you been painting?

I first started to paint when I was a toddler with those cheap watercolor sets and I had absolutely no idea what I was doing to get the image I wanted. Yet, when it came to pencil and color pencil drawings, that’s when I began to hone my craft. I have an older brother who was into comic books at the time and had a set of superhero playing cards. They looked beautiful and I wanted to copy them.

In the beginning, around when I was in elementary school, I would trace over the cards. Soon enough, I was drawing them by eye, of course using my eraser a lot along the way. Those cards were a starting point to understand perspective and proportions.

Over time, I became a lot more comfortable doing more of those types of drawings and started to branch out by doing birthday cards for my family that were around a variety of themes. I was still painting a little bit though but it was pencil where I became comfortable creating a piece of art. My portfolio to get into junior high school were all pencil drawings.

I was fortunate enough to go to an arts oriented high school where they had electives and specialties on various art techniques. That was where I finally learned how to use watercolor, oil and acrylic paint. I fell in love with painting from that point forward.


Why did you first start incorporating elements of science into your work? Was it difficult pairing art and science together?

I’ve always loved science. In high school, science and art were among my best subjects so maybe it was just a matter of time before I began incorporating science into my artwork.

Surprising, it wasn’t difficult to combine science with art. That may be because I tend to have a vision for what I want to create so the execution part hasn’t been a challenge. However, it did add a level of additional work into the process.

I aim for the pieces to be fairly accurate. That requires me to do a fair amount of research on each of the topics I want to convey in an artwork. While tedious at times, it allows me to continuously learn which is an enjoyable addition to the creation process.

What is it about the brain/neuroscience that fascinates you?

To answer this, I have to take a step back to when I really started to begin socializing and networking after college. Overtime, I began to notice behaviors among some people I met that seemed suspiciously familiar.

Growing up with my mom, I noticed a pattern in how she would think. At the time, I didn’t think much of it, I just figured that is how my mom thinks. For example, she would on separate occasions bring up something either me or my brother may have done when either of us were like 5 years old to justify how she might react to us as adults; as if either of us can go back in time and change what we did. For lack of a better phrase, I’ll call that “leaning into the past” where, in my opinion, that threshold of past behavior should no longer be relevant if it hadn’t occurred since.

When I began socializing more, I started to notice that pattern with some people where they would repeatedly bring up their past to help justify how they would treat the situation they were in at the moment. That got me thinking, oh, so it’s not just my mom! Ok, well what is it that’s different between people who lean into the past versus those able to be fully present? Then that led me to, what is the one thing we all have in common? One of many things is having a brain, the computer in our skull running how we operate as human beings! At the time I was reading the book “The Power of Now” which describes why the only moment we can control is right now. So what is it about our brain that makes people feel comfortable leaning into the past, leaning into the future, are in perhaps a whole other reality versus being in the present? I wanted to begin seeking that out through art.

That exploration led to me being curious about how I could represent what I felt was happening in my own brain (i.e. migraines from caffeine withdrawal, difficulty with memory from time to time) and other topics that were of interest. The series grew from there.

Each of your paintings or drawings reference a specific characteristic of the brain (for example, “The Brain and Smoking” “Caffeine Headache” or “Cognitive Dissonance”). Can you discuss your process?

Once I have a topic in mind, that’s when I begin searching for information. What I look for first is what parts of the brain are activated during this particular activity. To do that I rely on Google searches for research articles on this particular topic and I
have also leveraged a brain anatomy book I picked up at a brain exhibit at one of the museums in New York City. The research papers and articles are used to help identify the parts of the brain that are activated and I use the anatomy book to see where these areas are within the brain. That information helps me determine what angle of the brain is best for the composition.

As for the theme of the composition, I like to incorporate as much of a topic as possible while also highlighting the areas of the brain that are activated. I keep my anatomy book close by to make sure that the highlighted areas are relatively accurate as the art work takes shape.

Past, Present, Future of Dreaming

What is going on in your painting “Past, Present, Future or Dreaming”?

This painting definitely set the stage for the rest of the series as described in Q3 above. I felt that if I didn’t like how this painting turned out, I would stop pursuing the brain as an art series. This painting was the first brain art piece of the entire series.

In this painting are four Rubik’s Cubes. Each of the Cubes are connected with a rod and that represents that this is something we all have in common, our brain. Each Rubik’s Cube represents four different perceptions of how one may live their life whether they are: focused on the past a lot but not in the present, focused on the future but not in the present so they may have big dreams but not realising the steps they would need to take today to get them there, there is being in a different world not acknowledging (or wanting to escape) the reality of the world they live in, and last is being present.

From the book “The Power of Now” which I had read at the time, being present was top-of-mind. The power of being present is that this is the moment, right now, that you can truly control. You can’t control whatever may have happened 5 minutes ago, what will happen 5 minutes from now or 5 minutes in whatever alternative world you might be living in, all you can truly control is what you do in this moment.

To represent that, I use Rubik’s Cubes because that is a great puzzle where you know clearly when it is solved and that’s when each color fills its respective side of the cube. All the colors for each Cube match in the painting, to represent that to an individual, how their mind operates may feel correct to them. However, I added an image of the brain to each cube. The image is scrambled in all but the Cube representing the brain and being present. Here the image of the brain is intact, because it is the only scenario where we are really in control.

Brain cards

You also designed neuroscience-themed playing cards. Where did that idea come from? What’s it like playing a game of blackjack with them?

The idea for playing cards was threefold.

There was a grant I applied for that was education-focused and I thought of creating a brain calendar to replace school calendars. Something easily mass produced so that parents can talk to the kids about how the brain works and advances in Neuroscience throughout the school year so students, young and old, can learn to appreciate this organ we all have. That is still a project I would be interested in doing.

Another reason was I wanted to continue with the brain series but not on stretched canvases because that takes up space and I live in the New York apartment (aka space is precious). Yet I also wanted to do more than drawings. So I had to think of what could be done on a small scale.

The third reason is wanting to create something in this series that was also cost-effective, something that nearly anyone can afford and learn from versus an original painting that may cost thousands of dollars. Of course, those purchases are encouraged too!

Designing a 54-card deck was quite the undertaking and it took me several years to complete. However, the mission was accomplished to continue the series exploring additional topics in a different way leveraging numbers and the suits to tell us how signals flow through and to our brain for processing.

So one can play a game of blackjack as you normally would! I haven’t thought of a game idea that incorporates the topics of the brain covered in the deck, but welcome any ideas!!

What is your ultimate goal with your Neuroscience series?

The goal of the Neuroscience series is to have as many people as possible comfortable with this organ we don’t typically think about on a regular basis. This is the computer that runs our life. It’s something to be respected and understood as much as possible.

How many people still believe the old adage that we only use 10% of our brain when in fact the brain is still incredibly active while we’re sleeping!

While there are many scientific projects going on to do just that, the brain is still a mystery. So whether it’s a painting in the doctor’s office or a print the classroom of a science teacher or a deck of cards owned by a family, I want to offer various visually appealing and educational ways to help people appreciate our brain, an organ that truly influences who we are as human beings and influences how we treat each other.

What are you working on now?

I’m still sticking to the brain but now with a more pure aesthetic approach. As an artist there are many artists I’ve seen in magazines, websites, museums, galleries etc that I’ve come to admire. The next stage of the brain series is to take the styles of artists
I admire like Rene Magritte, Pablo Picasso, Piet Mondrian among others and incorporate the brain into their style.

The element of scientific research is out of the process. It is replaced by really looking at the style and composition of works/artists that are well-known and trying to incorporate the image of the brain into it, which is its own challenge. I’ve done two paintings so far with two more in the works. One I’m working on is to include an image of the brain in a painting in the style of Piet Mondrian’s “Broadway Boogie Woogie”.

For more information about Michelle Hunter and her work visit her site.

IMAGE SOURCE: Michelle Hunter

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