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Interview with artist Julia Buntaine

Published: 2015-08-25
Lee: Where are you from and how did you come to study art? Could you tell me a bit about your studio practice? How do you begin to form an idea and end with a finished product? How do you merge the two ideas (neuroscience and art) together?

Buntaine: I went to an arts high school where I did painting, drawing, sculpture and mixed media, and by the time I went to college I needed to take a break from art. I attained my BA from Hampshire College, one of the only schools in the country where you design your own curriculum, declare your own unique major, and receive narrative evaluations instead of grades, so I had a lot of room to explore my interests. During my first year there I was trying out different things, and decided to take an Introduction to Neuroscience course, because the idea of getting to know myself through my biology seemed potentially fruitful. What started as an interest in neuroscience turned into a total love affair - it went from being something I liked to learn about to something which felt very important to know about. I continued to study it throughout college, and started up sculpture, my medium of choice at that point, about midway through. 

At Hampshire for your fourth year you design, carry out and complete a "thesis" project much like a thesis of a PhD program (called a “Division III” in Hampshire lingo). Since it had to be preplanned to a certain extent, it was while I was a junior that I was trying to figure out what I would do for my Division III. At that point in time I was essentially double majoring in Neuroscience and Sculpture, running from the lab to the studio and back. I couldn't choose to do a science experiment over doing a sculptural gallery show or vice versa - I didn't want to give up either. My refusal to choose between art and science lead to a distinct moment of acute anxiety about my future path,  when my thoughts went from Neuroscience and Art to Neuroscience Art. I just took out the “And”. I can't explain exactly how or why but the “And” was gone, and I haven't turned back since.

Not long after starting to make sculpture about Neuroscience I felt like making art would really become my career because I finally had a subject matter which I thought was important. Since I know and love neuroscience, I feel it's important that more people know about it, and spend more time thinking about it. Neuroscience is concerned with the biology which gives rise to our conscious experience of being alive, and to me there is no idea more beautiful. Art is and always will be the best way to relate ideas. There is so much to know about the brain, so much to be discovered, that for me it's a fascinating field to try and relate, with so much mystery still involved, so much wonder left.

So that's how I came to making work about Neuroscience, and why I will always continue to do so (though I have ideas about expanding into other sciences, possibly, in the future). My actual studio practice is quite simple in comparison to the story which got me here: I usually have a list of pieces I want to make having to do with one aspect or another of the brain which I think I can relate three dimensionally - and through a careful mix of biological/technical imagery plus a recognizable form, I try to create some sort of metaphor, because it is through metaphors that we understand everything. Why I choose the things I do - maybe I read about something interesting, maybe I’m not happy with how something turned out and I want to give it another go, or maybe my contacts still in the field share something new to me. For example, right now I am working on a piece in which I am making multiple neurons as an installation piece, but in the arrangement of trees in a forest, to relate what people know really well (the look of/how trees grow in a forest) to the environment of neurons in the brain (which is not that different, fundamentally, from a forest). In the past my work has varied from the biologically based pieces to theory based works about consciousness, and right now I’m working on melding those two  - because the real point of my practice is to make beautiful things, and through the power of aesthetics, relate a little bit of science with metaphor.

Lee: As a visual learner myself, I often find myself applying drawing to learning process. I remember walking by your studio at MICA and seeing some of your sculpture taking shape and thinking that it looked like drawing in space. I am quite interested in your work titled "The Shape of (a) Thought." To me this work talks about Neuroscience but in such an abstract way. I love picking out the different thicknesses of the strings and following the curved and twisted lines! I'd be really excited to see you expand further into other sciences.

Julia Buntaine is currently attending the School of Visual Arts’ Master of Fine Arts program. She is living and working in New York City.  For more information, please visit the artist’s website at http://www.JuliaBuntaine.com. For Julia Buntaine’s Neuro Sculpture, please visit http://www.thecdt.org/article/view/1135.