Floating on inner seas

“My art is literally created by water, and imbued with its dynamics of movement, fluidity and flow, through my “floating colors” art-making process.”

Laura Ferguson has made her own body the subject of her art, finding beauty in a curving spine and exploring the connections between pain, consciousness, and creativity. “Floating on inner seas” will be part of a book-in-progress about her own art and the process of making it, ‘The Consciousness of the Body’.

Laura Ferguson: Back, viewed from above.

Art looks beneath the surface of life, and for me the place to look has always been the body.  I use drawing to convey the body’s visceral textures, its inherent beauty, uniqueness, and visual complexity, and its connection to the processes and patterns of nature.

I draw myself, from the inside out, tuning in to sensory and kinesthetic perceptions and finding beauty in a curving spine.

Laura Ferguson: His hands on my ribcage

Asymmetry at my body’s core brings the need for a subtle effort of balancing, which keeps me engaged with the workings of my bones and muscles, nerves and senses.

In anatomical terms, this is the realm of proprioception: the network of inner body signals and self-sensors through which the body monitors its relationships with space, time, gravity, and all that is other.

That conscious inhabiting of my body is at the core of my art.

Laura Ferguson: Reclining figure with visible skeleton

Floating in water is where my body feels suspended, almost weightless, and I can move freely, not limited by pain or stiffness or weakness.  In this suspended state, I’m aware of my body, yet the effort of moving is so balanced and graceful as to seem effortless.  A state of body full of visceral reality, yet removed from the stress of gravity, transcendent.

That’s the feeling I try to keep with me when I’m moving through the world, and it’s the feeling I want my work to have, the figures I draw: aware of pain but transcending it.

Drawing, I feel my body pouring directly into the lines I make on the paper, remembering how it feels to move freely, feeling pain but also feeling it dissolve into fluid grace.

Laura Ferguson: Blue water

My art is literally created by water, and imbued with its dynamics of movement, fluidity and flow, through my “floating colors” art-making process.

I begin by sprinkling thinned oil paints from a brush onto a tray filled with water.  The water is blended with carrageenan moss, a kind of seaweed, to make it more viscous.  Bronze powders in shades from pale gold to copper are mixed with the pigments.  Deeper colors are dropped inside lighter ones to create shades and shadows.  As the colors slowly spread out on the water, they form pale circles beaded with gold, widening into ovals whose edges thread outward, veining together in darker filaments of line.

Like winds and tides, in a microcosm of the natural world, the patterns of movement arise from a complex interplay between the thickness of the water, the temperature and humidity of the air, and the chemistry of individual pigments.  Light and its reflection meet, like a mirrored sunset, on the millimeter-thin film of surface tension holding the molecules of pigment suspended … poised between the air above and an underwater world below.

Laura Ferguson: Blue breasts/hands – left: floating colors underlayers; right: overlaid drawing

I lay paper onto this surface and transfer the floating image, then repeat the process many times, building up translucent layers of color and texture.  These floating colors become the underlayers on which I draw, with charcoal, pastel pencil, and oil crayon.  Even though I’ve created them myself, these papers seem like objects found in nature – shells on a beach, or patterns in sand, though filled with personal meaning.  They represent the aspect of creativity that’s natural, uncontrolled, unselfconscious … while my overlaid drawing represents its artistic duality: more conscious, willfully formed, cognizant.  The final drawings arise from a relationship between the floating colors and the figurative image.  Drawing becomes a process of revealing … revealing the images shaped by the water, which parallels the work of seeing, imaginatively, into the body, and revealing the images of movement, space, and structure found there.

Laura Ferguson: Spinal cord butterfly with floating colors (red crystalline)

As they spread out on the water, the dense drops of color seem to open to reveal their inner structure, as if magnified under a microscope … like a lens where the eye of imagination is refocused.  An opening of vision into the smallness and subtlety of inner space.

Laura Ferguson: Profile couple with visible skeleton

For someone whose physical life is constricted and whose range in the world is limited, this sense of an inward opening is wonderfully liberating.  Inside my body I find a world I can marvel at and never get to the end of, a cosmos of infinitely unfolding detail.

To distract myself from pain, I look for pleasurable pathways for my mind to follow, filtering experience, meaning, and corporeal memory through creative imagination.  Movement and fluidity are key … like watching waves rippling and breaking, or light dappling on water, it’s the motion, the flow, that makes connections happen.

Laura Ferguson: left: Spinal nerve landscape (#3); right: Double hands (brown-pink)

I open myself to pain as to pleasure, to the flowing networks of nerves and blood within me.  Paradoxically, I’ve found the best way to distract myself from pain is to tune in and enter into it directly – like diving into a wave, going deeper in order to transcend.  I can still feel its unpleasant painfulness, but put that aside to  focus in on its subtleties, recognize its various textures and its differences from no-pain.  Instead of judging pain as bad and pleasure good, I simply surrender to the value-less intensity of sensory experience: a heightened awareness of inner body states.

In Ariel Glucklich’s Sacred Pain, I came upon the intriguing idea that pain is “conscious by definition: If you are not aware of pain then you have no pain. … To a large extent, then, the study of pain is the study of consciousness.”

Laura Ferguson: Bending figure with visible skeleton

To study pain, I had to return in body memory to a life-defining experience: spinal surgery and a year in a full-body plaster cast at age thirteen.  Emerging from that plaster shell as if from a chrysalis, I reveled in movement and the feel of my own skin.  But gravity was pressing down invisibly on my vulnerable spine, and over the years, pain was woven together with pleasure.

Scoliosis, with its complicated rotational dynamics, is fundamentally visual – all about spatial relationships, asymmetry, and balance.  In trying to visualize what was happening to my spine, I became fascinated by the intricate beauty of the human skeleton, and intrigued by the visual possibilities of a body that was beautiful but flawed.  The anatomy-based movement practices that helped me to keep functioning (Alexander Technique, neuromuscular training, yoga, and Pilates) made me feel more whole and three-dimensional, and making art about my body brought me to a deeper level of physical self-awareness and connection.

Vibrations from the impact of weight-bearing are the signals for the body to grow new bone; if the body’s weight is unevenly distributed, those vibrations will send different signals to the left and right sides of the spine, setting in motion a process of asymmetric loading.  As the spine begins to curve, the body works creatively to maintain alignment.  The ribcage rotates, individual vertebrae change shape, and compensating curves develop to counterbalance the main one – like a tree whose branches bend and twist in their efforts to reach the sun.  But the triggering mechanism that sets this whole process in motion is still, in most cases, idiopathic: unknown.  Research has variously focused on a dysfunction of growth hormone, or melatonin, or the vestibular system; or connective tissue that’s too lax; or a proprioceptive miscue that signals to the body that it’s standing upright when it’s really leaning slightly to one side.  These and many more explanations were interesting to me, but none felt convincing or resonated with my own experience.

Laura Ferguson: Lumbar vertebrae, anterior view

Over the years, as scientists searched for answers, I investigated this process from an artist’s perspective, using drawing to create visual harmony from asymmetry.  I worked with doctors to have 3D radiology images of my body made for my use as an artist; and drew from bones and cadaver dissections in the anatomy lab at NYU School of Medicine, where I’m Artist in Residence.  I love the contrast of cutting-edge technology with hand making and traditional media.  My drawings evolve slowly as I learn the anatomy in increasing depth and detail.  I work to evoke the textures of real flesh and bone: a sensual take on anatomy, a reclaiming of the inner landscape.

Laura Ferguson: left: Lumbar vertebrae with emerging nerves; right: Sacrum with emerging nerves

For many years I drew my spine itself; more recently, my access to the resources of the medical school has allowed me to explore my curving spinal cord, and the nerves that branch from it.  In the 3D lab, I twist and turn the image of my spine at each vertebral level to view the compressed spaces through which my nerves must emerge. In the anatomy lab I observe and draw the nerves themselves – pathways for movement and sensory experience: the consciousness of the body.

As I venture deeper into the inner space of the body – where creative adaptations first arise, at the cellular level – I’m looking to the farthest reaches of what can be seen with the naked eye, and using photomicrography to glimpse what can’t: nerves at their tiniest endpoints, at the very places where feeling is being felt, or movement initiated.

Laura Ferguson: Blue-grey kneeling/stretching figure

It’s at this smallest scale that the floating colors most closely echo the forms of nature.  Space seems to unfold as I work with its imagery, bringing me into an underwater world, a world of sensual memories, a world without language.

In the underwater world I’m in my element … gliding, weightless, free to move with no hindrance, no friction, no pain.  I glide through the aqueous light, with its patterns of clear sunlight and rippling shadows.  Here my body is mine; the water ripples against my skin like touch as I remember love and pleasure, and the colors float in my mind’s eye, effortless, graceful.

Laura Ferguson: Arbor vitae of cerebellum (mauve crystalline)

Here feeling balanced is like floating, suspended effortlessly on the surface of the water.  Ideas and images float upward to the surface of consciousness, as the webs of pale color coalesce … crystalline webs reflecting the neural basis of vision and mental activity; electric impulses flickering across synapses, from axon to dendrite, following learned pathways or creating new ones.  Transferred to paper, they form patterns of line and color for the eyes to follow … suggestions of meaning, association, and visual memory that set the mind free to wander into the deepest areas of interior life or the spacious reaches of imaginary time and space.

Laura Ferguson: Spinal nerve landscape (#1)

As my knowledge of anatomy grows, my drawings become looser – still tied to anatomical reality but less defined, more open, with a different balance of real and imagined, and a different relationship to the floating colors.

Following their pathways makes me feel connected to every nerve ending, every cell in my body.  I imagine myself floating in the fluid milieu intérieur that bathes our 75 trillion cells.  In The Wisdom of the Body, Dr. Sherwin Nuland extols the beauties of this internal environment – crucial to all body functioning and a primeval connection to the seas and the origins of all life there.  “Inside we are wet,” he writes. “It is our internal wetness that gives life.”

Laura Ferguson: Arbor vitae with brainstem and 4th ventricle

Recently I came across a surprising new theory about the triggering cause of scoliosis: an imbalance in the flow of cerebrospinal fluid – the milieu intérieur of the brain and spinal cord.

The research I read about in Science* was done with tiny, translucent zebrafish.  (Bony fish turn out to be the only organisms, other than humans, who naturally develop curving spines.)  Since swimming for me feels like an escape from the pressure of gravity, I imagined that fish could glide through water easily – but in fact they have to work hard, beating their tails for propulsion.  Swimming head-on into water exerts a force on their spines equivalent to that of gravity on upright humans.

In humans as well as fish, tiny, vibrating cilia (Latin for “eyelashes”) propel cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) with whip-like motions, and control its flow through the brain and spinal canal.   Cilia, it turns out, are complex sensing mechanisms that “project into the extracellular space and play critical roles in the perception and integration of environmental signals,” the authors write.  Their research has discovered a genetic defect that causes the cilia to “break left-right symmetry … which is critical for central nervous system homeostasis. … Abnormal L-R asymmetries and defective CSF flow have been observed in IS [idiopathic scoliosis] patients.”

How exciting that this theory is all about movement and, like the milieu intérieur, about wetness, fluidity, and flow.

I’ve already begun drawing the ventricles of the brain, and look forward to floating on these inner seas for a long time to come …

Laura Ferguson: Dark on light with neurons (dorsal root ganglion)


* “Zebrafish models of idiopathic scoliosis link cerebrospinal fluid flow defects to spine curvature,” DT Grimes, CW Boswell, NFC Morante, RM Henkelman, RD Burdine, B Ciruna, Science, 10 Jun 2016: Vol. 352, Issue 6291, pp. 1341-1344; DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf6419.



All text and images copyright and courtesy of Laura Ferguson

Video clip ‘Floating Colors’ are from “Laura Ferguson: Visualizing Inner Space,” directed by Peter Barton.

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