By Jackie Rocheleau
BU News Service
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Boston University’s new Kilachand Center, housing neuroscience labs and a biological engineering center, also houses a massive sculpture. This 230 square-foot “Blue-Green Brainbow” comprises thousands of hand-crafted pieces of urethane resin, created by New York City artist Carson Fox. BU’s selection committee chose Fox to create this installation after viewing proposals from several other artists vying for the commission. It was Fox’s dedication to learning about the science of the center and incorporating that into her style that set her apart. Outside of “Brainbow,” her most recent projects use sculptures to mimic rock formations found in nature. Fox began training as an artist during her undergraduate years at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and pursued further degrees in fine arts at University of Pennsylvania and Rutgers University, moving to New York City soon after to begin her career.
Jacqueline Rocheleau: How would you describe the type of art that you do?
Carson Fox: I’m very process oriented, I like to problem-solve. I also like things that include a lot of labor, so I would say that’s a good way of describing my work, very process-oriented and a lot of labor involved. Usually the works are made of many small pieces to make the whole.
J: What about that appeals to you?
C: I think it has a lot to do with when I moved to New York. I had the smallest studio you can imagine. I had to figure out small things I could make and take out and reassemble into larger, more impactful things. It also might have something to do with some of my favorite childhood toys. As I look back…those Lite-Brites and things that had to be filled with lots of pieces? I loved those things. You’ve reminded me, my son doesn’t have a Lite-Brite—that’s a damn shame.
J: Why do you like working with resin so much?
C: Resin offers me so much in terms of the scope of color that I can achieve. Also, I can add glitter, diamond dust, different kinds of pigment into the surface, and then get all sorts of crazy effects. I love it because it still continues to surprise me every time I work with it.
J: Why did you decide to install your work at a life sciences building at BU? What brought you here?
C: I was commissioned to do it, which was a big thing! The year before, I had done another public work for University of Arkansas’ mathematics and science building. So, when this commission came up, I was put forth by the committee [at BU]. I did a presentation at BU in front of the panel, which included a couple of the scientists who were working in the building, and they helped me understand [their research]. I had to do research of my own to find out if there was something that I could be really interested in in the studio. If it’s not something that has some overlapping interest for me, I just don’t do it.
J: Did you have previous interest in the life sciences?
C: I’d always been interested in science as a kid. I didn’t pursue that past high school, but that was always my second love. But when I went to college, I went to an art school and that opportunity dried up. I was much better at art and it was something from a very early age I knew I was going to do. I never really engaged with the sciences again and it’s a shame; I’d loved my biology classes in high school and it was something I guess I kind of forgot about until I came around to this project.
J: Your sculpture is based on an imaging technique called Brainbow, where scientists genetically engineer small animals’ neurons to express fluorescent proteins to visualize individual neurons. Before the Brainbow idea struck, what others had you considered?
C: I had been making these forms that looked like rock or mineral formations. As I was making them, I noticed there were other forms that looked similar, viruses and bacteria. In particular, the ones [rock formation sculptures] I did at University of Arkansas were round and had tons of little spiky protrusions…they reminded me of images I’d seen online [of viruses and bacteria]. When I first made a proposal, I suggested making small viruses and bacteria and then putting thousands of them in the space. The panel said ‘That’s not really the kind of research that’s going on here, we’re doing brain research.’ So I came across the Brainbow images of the mouse brains and got really excited because they reminded me of the way that I work already in terms of making small pieces that fit together.
J: In your research, what’s the coolest thing you learned about neuroscience?
C: What blew my mind is the way they’re photographing the mouse brains. I mean, there’s actually a hole cut into the mouse itself with a camera inserted!
I also had the chance to talk with some of the people who work in the building, and someone was talking to me about working with blind patients and how they’re able to visualize what a space might look like. It’s very interesting how the brain has this potential to rewire itself, to learn how to do things differently.
J: What has been the best reaction to “Brainbow” so far?
C: One of the graduate students who came in, looked up at it and said, ‘Oh, that looks like neurons firing.’ I was so incredibly happy that came through!