Dendrites in ASCI, September 2015

Author: Ellen Jantzen, Feature Member Editor @ASCI
Publication: ASCI
Published: September 10, 2015
Article link:
Article pdf: Hidden Footprints


asciarticleJudith Modrak
Interviewed by Ellen Jantzen

EJ [Ellen Jantzen, Feature Member Editor @ASCI]: I too was born with a curiosity about the natural world, peering through a microscope and drawing cell structures. I am interested in learning about your decision to follow art (your major in college) rather than one of the biological fields.

JM [Judith Modrak, Artist] While I have always been drawn to the natural sciences, I have felt an even stronger pull to visually depict the human condition, especially from a psychological perspective. Being emotionally hardwired and acutely sensitive to my environment and those around me, I acquired at an early age, a desire to document my immediate world and the people in it.

Attending the Houston High School for Performing and Visual Arts (HSPVA) was a pivotal point in my teenage life which had been one of intense rebellion and tumult. HSPVA’s programs provided an outlet for a torrent of complicated emotions that found their voice in drawings, sculptures, and photography. Art as my raison d’être became clear during this period and has remained constant ever since. HSPVA laid the foundation for majoring in studio art with degrees from the University of Rochester and the San Francisco Art Institute.

Without question, my inquisitiveness about biology, psychology, neuroscience, and anatomy, has informed my art practice in a concrete way for many years. In this sense, the “Dendrites Series” is a continuum of my much earlier investigations into the essence of identity from anatomical and spiritual perspectives in pieces such as “Self- Portrait,” “Circe,” and “Stonehenge.”

When I'm Scared_Judith Modrak

When I’m Scared, 2014 – 42”x46”x12”, plaster cast, pigment and oil

EJ: What spurred your interest in understanding the human brain?

JM: Decoding our internal physiological, and emotive worlds, within the historical period we find ourselves, has been an ongoing source of artistic inspiration and interest to me. Examining our differences and similarities led to a desire to understand the brain and the mechanisms responsible for triggering and regulating thought, action, and emotion.

Over a decade ago, I read about the role of neurotransmitters in psychological states and mental illness and their influence on one’s mood and overall well-being. Revelations about how our brains are encoded helped to explain my reactions to certain life events.

In 2013, the seed for what became my “Dendrites” series, was planted as I read an article about advances in understanding the role that dendrites and neurons play in Autism. From this departure point, I read a number of related articles on neurons and dendrites and their roles in memory, learning, mental processes, and neurological functions. As my knowledge and excitement grew, the natural next-step was to imagine ways to humanize these enigmatic and extraordinary cells, and to begin sculpting them.

EJ: While developing your “Dendrites” artwork, did you collaborate with any scientist to help you understand how neurons and dendrites change based on age, anxiety or other conditions?

JM: I am very fortunate to have a brother, Joseph Modrak, who is an M.D. and professor of pulmonary medicine and several close friends who are professors in different fields of science. As the “Dendrites” series sprung to life, while not collaborating per se, I enlisted their expertise to answer specific questions about how the brain processes information in the larger context of neural plasticity and health. This past Spring, I had the wonderful opportunity to discuss the role of neurons in great depth with a neuroscientist at New York University and to view the neurons of maggots responding to light stimulation in a lab setting.

While rooted in scientific discoveries, the “Dendrites” series departs into an imaginative realm involving my interpretation of what these complex cells may look like when one is scared, old, feeling secure or insecure, or afflicted with other mental or neurological conditions. For example, “When I’m Scared”, is my representation of a “frightened neuron.” The neuron’s body is curled in a fetal position with its many dendritic arms protectively encasing it. The cell body has a number of cavities filled with red blood cells to amplify its fearful state.

Here and There, 2015 - 88”x12”x14”, plaster cast, pigment and oil on wood base

Here and There, 2015 – 88”x12”x14”, plaster cast, pigment and oil on wood base

EJ: The nature of memory is quite evident in your “Dendrites” series. What drew you to memory and it’s influence on aging?

JM: The emotive quality of memories, even chronologically distant ones, is a source of ongoing interest to me. Why are some memories raw and tender decades later, and why do others fade into oblivion? Where do our minds and bodies physically store memories? Certain memories elicit joy, others dread and sadness —- what is the role that these memories play in our neural blueprint and in how we engage with one another? All of these questions, and more, are a never-ending stream of intellectual and artistic intrigue, and provide a fertile bed for future sculptures.

For some time, aging has been a recurring theme in my figurative and organic work. Several sculptures in the “Dendrites” series explore the aging process. “When I’m Old” probes into the manner in which memories and experiences accrue over a lifetime. The figure’s long dendritic branches reach skyward and back in time. The sculpture’s nucleus is filled with smaller replicas of the larger dendrite to emphasize the repetitive nature of emotion and experience as we age. In contrast, “When I Was Young” reflects the expansive and buoyant nature of youth. As he is only beginning to store memories, the sculpture has short, chubby spinal branches with a very small nucleus.

Tried to Change_green_side_Judith Modrak

Tried to Change, 12”x7.5”x3½”, edition 1 of 2 of an edition of 7, plaster cast, oil, pigment and copper leaf on wood base

EJ: How are the themes of your “Dendrite” work conveyed to your viewers. Is there accompanying text or are you relying on the emotional nature of the work to bring about an understanding?

JM: Interestingly enough, the work evokes the intended emotion or conceptual state without any explanatory text. When I exhibited a number of the “Dendrites” sculptures together, I was struck by the emotional responses they engendered in others. I observed that “When I’m Scared” initially made people feel afraid and then strangely protective, as if they wanted to provide comfort to the sculptural form and, perhaps, themselves. “When I’m Old” has a mesmerizing effect on others and leads to generalized discussions about the aging process and how the brain captures and stores memories. Viewers are attracted to “Here and There” in a rather strong magnetic way, like children chasing fireflies on a summer night. Once the audience discovers that “Here and There” is an interpretation of bipolar disorder, the conversation typically flows into one of personal disclosure about their friends and family with this condition.

For people not necessarily familiar with the inner workings of the brain, the “Dendrites” series serves as a gateway into understanding themselves and their world more completely. Understanding is the first-step in acceptance, acceptance brings cohesion to society and furthers human endeavor. I hope that understanding our minds will facilitate greater compassion for ourselves, each other, and our planet.