Squaring up to a challenge

This summer, our workshop at the Oxford Printmakers’ Co-operative was approached by the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics to take part in an experimental collaboration between artists and researchers.

The idea was to pair us up, get each other talking and for the artist to develop a print in response to the researcher’s work. It sounded very exciting, and a great way of doing something new. So, a number of us said yes and were matched to take part in the project.

I met up with Kate Thomson, ‘my’ researcher (we artists got quite possessive about it!), whose sister turned out to be an amazing painter and who gave me great visual to start with: an image of what the human DNA sequence looks like, using a technique called ‘high throughput’ – basically, squares of four colours (yellow, green, blue, red) dotted irregularly all over a black background.

What really struck me listening to her was that being able to map the entire human genome for individuals has thrown up new questions about which genes, or combinations of genes, play a role in conditions such as cardiomyopathy. Kate’s research at the Wellcome Centre is trying to find out more about the genetic factors in such conditions that affect the shape and size of the heart muscle, reducing its ability to pump blood around the body.

My aim was to combine the technical with the human side, especially as I was touched by hearing about cases where seemingly fit and active people have a heart attack, some sadly with fatal consequences.

I combine these insights in my print by introducing gaps – both in knowledge and the pattern of the genome and in uncertainty, and occasionally sad loss, for those who have these conditions.

As an artist, the project did turn out to be a real challenge – it was reassuring to find that it proved to be one for most of us: I think everyone I met in the workshop in August and September thought so, with many of us – certainly me – only hitting on the final, ‘right’, design in October just before our scheduled exhibition called ‘Experimental Design’ at Fusion Arts.

Preparatory design for 'High Throughput'

Preparing the design for ‘High Throughput’ screenprint

I knew that I wanted, and indeed, had to make this a screenprint – if only to reproduce the colours of the DNA image. Other elements also had to be included, I felt, such as:

  • the gaps (as mentioned) in knowledge and people in danger because of, or lost to, their genetic heart condition
  • the common visuals of the heart-beat and -shape, with all the connotations that come with them.

However, combining all this into a print that works as one image and is (I hope) both readable but not too obvious, proved to be a much sterner challenge than I had anticipated. It took me pages full of sketches and over three months, including one false start when I showed my ‘final’ design to my mother whose response was less than enthusiastic (rightly so!), before the actual image finally become clear and emerged, Athena-like, virtually fully-fledged from my head.

All it took from that point was coloured paper (it could have been any colour, but helpful to get an idea of what it would look like once printed), scissors, glue and an awful lot of patience!

Find out more about my, and other printmakers’, work for this project – as well as that of the Wellcome Trust Centre – on their website! Or, even better, come and see our exhibition when it comes to the John Radcliffe Hospital from 21 January to 3 March 2017; after that, the prints will find their permanent home on the walls of the Wellcome Trust Centre itself up in Headington. And if you want to have fun, watch me try and describe it to Hanisha Sethi at That’s Oxfordshire.


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