Scientist-turned-artist creates a field guide to neurons in ‘Neuro Land’ at the Hood College Hodson Gallery

When seeking artists to exhibit work at the Hood College Hodson Gallery, gallery director Bonnie Kern had asked artist Michal Gavish whether she would be able to fill the 50-foot walls in the space.

Gavish succeeded, despite having started on a microscopic level.

“Neuro Land,” which opened at the Hodson on Jan. 17, was inspired by 3D models of nerve cells, also known as neurons, in the brain. Students stop in to look and take selfies amid the images Gavish painted on fabric and paper, which delights Kern, who said her goal is to intermingle the arts with other college departments.

“It’s very engaging,” Kern said of Gavish’s installations, which will be on exhibit and open to the public through Feb. 24. “The students can interact with it. Every time the doors open, the panels move. That was unexpected, which just made it cooler.”

Gavish described the end result as a “diorama with neurons in a little forest, which is how I imagine it.” She said her goal was to bring “the viewer into the brain.”

Throughout the pandemic, the galleries at Hood were without a gallery director. Then about a year ago, Bonnie Kern, a visual artist and arts educator, stepped into the role. Kern said that since she started, she has been working to bring in new artists who work in various mediums.

Gavish, who lives and works in Washington, D.C., and New York City, was a chemist for decades before she pursued an MFA in painting. Ultimately, she left the chem lab behind, but not the curiosity or analytical skills she had cultivated years earlier while earning a PhD.

“I just want to understand everything,” she said recently from her home in D.C. “What is the structure, what is it made of?”

When asked if she still does her own research, Gavish responded, “It’s impossible; you can’t do both.”

She logs long hours creating art professionally, as well as teaching art and design. Instead of researching the science herself, she collaborates “with people whose subject is interesting to me. I visit their lab, read and study their subject and look at their data and imagery, sketch, and think, until I find a visual idea of how to approach their data.”

Some Hood instructors wove a visit to “Neuro Land” into their class curriculum, including Katie Huy and the Rev. Beth O’Malley from a new major at the school, Sustainability Studies, which was added in 2020. While that program focuses on the intersection of water, energy and food, it also offers “students space to look at the systems that connect, or separate, people and places,” Huy said.

Kern guided the sustainability classes through “Neuro Land” and, working from notes Gavish provided for each piece, talked about how nerves work in the body. Kern said Gavish has a knack for breaking down the information for those with little or no background in hard science. “She put it into a visual realm, regardless of majors. There’s a big gamut of the types of students who go in [to the gallery].”

Sustainability student Majorie Lemus was among those who made the connection to Gavish’s forest imagery.

“I really enjoyed when Bonnie explained how our brain will receive signals about certain pain, either blocking it out to keep us alive or activating our fight or flight system,” Lemus said. “It made me think about different times my body has taken signals and processed it to better protect me. It was a really cool concept to see visually.”

For student Ann Ofoegbu, the exhibition connected with her science background. “Many of the neurons I draw in my science classes have the same structure as the ones illustrated in the gallery, but it isn’t realistic,” Ofoegbu said. “The piece makes me feel curious about what my brain and neurons do throughout a day, seeing as it is my control center.”

“In the beginning I was a chemist, and I still am, in many ways,” Gavish said. “[Science] completes the picture of the world for me. I know most people don’t see it.”

But thanks to Kern and her colleagues, the young scholars at Hood are seeing that complete world, while also learning to appreciate (or, at the very, least not fear) art and science, despite what they might be majoring in.

Dawn Morgan Neary is a freelance journalist from Tampa, Florida, and currently resides in Mount Airy with her large blended family. She holds an MFA in film and electronic media from American University and teaches in the GED/ESL programs at Frederick Community College.

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