The man’s nose was inches from the painting, an abstract image the exact size of a floppy disk. The scientist in him saw familiar microscopic patterns like blood vessels—or maybe they were strands of connective tissue—in the vibrant swirls of color.
“It certainly stimulates the neurons,” he says finally.
The tiny paintings weren’t in a gallery but in one of UVA’s biomedical research buildings. Called “The Art of Diagnosis,” it’s a collaboration between an artist and a microbiologist inspired to investigate whether art can inform science, whether abstract art specifically can play a role in diagnosing or finding cures for diseases.
Brydie Ragan, the artist, and Julie Davis Turner, a UVA associate professor of microbiology, met in December at an event not often seen in academia: speed dating. It was the kickoff of the Science & Art Project, and the speed-dating component threw together more than 170 artists and scientists—two groups whose paths don’t intersect enough. Sculptors mixed with physicists, musicians with engineers. The idea behind the initiative is that an alliance could spur greater creativity and greater understanding on both sides, and perhaps novel solutions to problems.
Ragan, a training administrator in UVA’s Housing Division, attended the event in search of a microbiologist. For years, she has been doing independent research into scleroderma, a disease that causes the skin to harden. When her sister was diagnosed with it in 1992, they sought out various specialists and treatments. “Each had a different theory to champion,” Ragan says. “My sister was being tugged and pulled in every which way.”
In frustration, Ragan began her own “cure quest,” following different lines of inquiry within the medical field and beyond. “I also made drawings as part of this, to process the information,” she says. Over time, her research into scleroderma and the images she produced seemed to inform each other, she says. On some intuitive level, it was like she was developing a way of seeing inside the body.
“The Art of Diagnosis” is a project still in its “embryogenesis stage,” according to Ragan and Turner. In March, they held a public talk to explain the concept and brainstorm about research possibilities with the audience, which included art therapists, neuroscientists, infectious disease specialists and community members simply piqued by the hypothesis.
Turner introduced Ragan, calling her “amazingly educated, creative and curious” and has been impressed by the way Ragan is trying to integrate science and art. Further scientific inquiry, Turner suggests, can perhaps bridge the chasm between the physical and the cognitive, and between what is known and what is felt.
One of Ragan’s ideas for general research is to work with a scientist to examine the art of Paul Klee, who died of scleroderma, for clues that might lead to a cure for the disease.
Ragan points out cases in which art has seemed to anticipate science. Abstract painters like Lyonel Feininger and Max Ernst, working in the early 20th century, produced organic forms that bear an uncanny resemblance to micrographs (photographs taken through a micropscope), which weren’t developed until the end of the century.
“Creativity and innovation have no boundaries,” says Tom Skalak, UVA’s vice president for research and an early supporter of the Science & Art Project. “We hope great things will happen—but we don’t have a preconceived notion of what that will be.”