Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?
Ralph Helmick: Since childhood I was the class artist, but I never suspected art would be my life’s work until after earning a degree in American Studies. My undergraduate studies focussed on art history and psychology. Professor Diane Kirkpatrick transformed my life through brilliant lectures resulting in what might be called a dilation of perception. Eventually I ended up in grad school studying 3D. In retrospect, the fact that my father was an engineer may have something to do with my pursuing sculpture. I like the physicality of it, that it shares our space.
RB: Your work, Heart and Mind, involves images of an anatomical human heart and a cross-section of a human brain, which come together at specific perspective vantage points. What is this work saying about the connection between the heart and the brain?
RH: These iconic images are, of course, oversimplifications, but nonetheless powerful as symbols. The highly calibrated composition of Heart and Mind embodies how our intellect and emotions overlap. It’s a cross-pollinating jungle with a hidden order.
“Anamorphosis” is the term for an optical phenomenon wherein visual information coalesces into a coherent image from a specific perspective. It can be a powerful metaphor for discovery. This sense of investigation, unveiling and surprise is a component of why we need and love art.
RB: Can you say something about your work Schwerpunkt?
RH:Here again an image of the human brain anchors a three dimensional anamorphosis.
The setting is the 3-story entrance to the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 100 unique gold-leafed sculptures of neurons are suspended from the ceiling, and when seen from the top of the stairs they conflate into a line drawing of a brain hemisphere.
Neuroscientific research being pursued in the Institute’s laboratories was inspiring. The scientific strategies there embody beautiful design. And of course neurons themselves are sublimely beautiful. So the sculpture reflects how planning and chance can overlap into something revelatory. I’d call that a definition of art
Schwerpunkt, by the way, is a German word meaning ‘focal point’. The title was suggested by a German artist friend, and seems appropriate for the piece.
RB: Did you find yourself encountering things you didn’t know about the brain as you created Schwerpunkt? How has the work changed your own conception of the function of the brain?
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