Brainscapes: An Artist’s Impression

brainscape-18-2006-etching-and-aquatintArtist Susan Aldworth tells us the story behind the cover artwork for Do No Harm, Henry Marsh’s extraordinary insight into what it is to be a brain surgeon, published on 13 March 2014.

Brainscape 18 is an etching from a drawing by Susan Aldworth. It was made on location of a patient undergoing a brain scan, a cerebral angiogram, to locate an aneurysm in their brain. It was drawn in the neuroradiology suite at the Royal London Hospital on 3 January 2006, where Aldworth was Artist in Residence from 2005 to 2008. Brainscape 18 is an internal portrait of someone, a patient undergoing a brain scan on the operating table and an intimate portrait of their mind in action.

Here is Aldworth’s diary entry from that day, 3 January 2006:

I am taken back into the very room where my own cerebral angiogram was done – the Neuroradiology Suite. I know this room. Shut down emotions now. I have to work. This is about looking, pictures and ideas. I am an artist. I must do what I came to do.

I am sat behind a protective glass screen against the X-rays. There are four computer screens in front of me and a desk. I lay out my pencils, brushes, pastels and paints. I balance my sketch book on my knee. I breathe in short breaths. Looking, looking looking – seeing the room through the screen – the bed, the television screens, the X-ray machine hanging like a white bell above the head of the bed. The arch of white plastic around the bed like a contemporary flying buttress.

The patient is wheeled in. I am surprised at the number of staff in the theatre – anaesthetists, nurses, radiographers, radiologists, a medical physicist and an artist. The nurses transfer the patient from trolley to the bed. She has a blue robe on and brown hair. I cannot see her face but feel a surge of tenderness at the sight of the two toes poking through the holes in her surgical stockings. Someone switches on Heart FM. The theme tune from Titanic blasts out and dilutes the drama.

The procedure begins. Press the Blue button. Activate the X-rays. Gentle talk from the nurses and Dr Butler. I see a bit of blood as the artery is accessed. The nurse and Dr Butler seem to be performing some sort of sewing exercise between them as they hold the catheter and gently insert it into the artery and then up through the body into the brain.

Suddenly my television screens flashes into life. I no longer listen to what Dr Butler is saying to his nurses and technicians – there is work to be done and all I can sense is the image on the screen. I fight to find ways to translate what I am seeing onto paper. This is the moment in picture-making when the intellect stops and the other takes over. I think only about materials, marks, texture and colour.

I work very fast – the images on the screen are constantly moving and changing. I can see the ribs and the spine in soft translucent greys and the catheter is dancing up and up through the thorax towards the brain. I can see the teeth and the shape of the mouth. I can see the whole beautiful skull.

Then I hear Dr Butler saying, ‘Hold still. Don’t breathe. Quite still now,’ and the machine clicks and gurgles and then you see the strange dancing forest of arteries of the brain – a thinking, feeling, working, living brain.

About Susan Aldworth:

The work of Susan Aldworth explores the impact of current neuroscience on our understanding of what it means to be human. Recent exhibitions include Susan Aldworth: The Portrait Anatomised at the National Portrait Gallery, London, Reassembling the Self at the Hatton Gallery, Newcastle, and Mind Maps: Stories from Psychology currently at the Science Museum, London. Aldworth is a regular broadcaster on BBC radio, including A Room for a View (2013), The Print Master (2012) and The Portrait Anatomised (2011). Aldworth is represented by GV Art Gallery, London.

Do No Harm by Henry Marsh is out now in hardback and ebook. The paperback will be published on 23 October 2014.