“I just immediately started drawing [them] because they were so beautiful,” says Hunter, a visual art and design professor at the University of South Carolina. “His drawings in person were even more amazing than I thought they were going to be.”
Ramón y Cajal’s drawings first caught Hunter’s eye while doing research for a neuroanatomy textbook she was asked to illustrate in 2012. Ramón y Cajal, hailed by many as the father of modern neuroscience, depicted the inner workings of the brain through thousands of intricate illustrations before his death in 1934. He first posited that unique, inter-connected entities called neurons were the central nervous system’s fundamental unit of function.
“I was shocked and in awe by how [some of his drawings were] put together—with a continuous, refined, and accurate line for each unique form” that he drew while peering at his subjects through a microscope, Hunter wrote in an application for a Fulbright scholarship, which she was awarded this year. This deviates from the perceptual drawing process followed by most artists, she explains. Typically, the artist uses pencil and “articulates, erases, and re-articulates the observed,” she writes. Ramón y Cajal didn’t use pencil first, choosing to draw in ink right off the bat. “His approach to drawing revealed a personal intensity and absolute focus.”
But when he illustrated his own hypotheses on the function of more-complex neural circuits, Ramón y Cajal often combined approaches. He’d include tracings with a camera lucida as well as sketches from his direct observation, and would often use pencil to map out where he wanted to place things prior to using ink, Hunter explains.
Hunter’s immersion in Ramón y Cajal’s work will take her to the Cajal Institute in Madrid, Spain, for four months through the Fulbright España Senior Research Fellowship. Starting this September, she will pore over 2,000 of his drawings as well as photographs, sculptures, letters, a Nobel Prize, and a death mold—an actual mold of his face taken upon his death—in order to create original, biographical drawings and paintings of the famed neuroscientist.
But rather than setting out to create an artistic biography of one of neuroscience’s greatest and best-known pioneers, she describes conceiving the project as “sort of an intuitive thing,” with her increasing interest gradually paving the way. “It just became this unraveling,” she recalls. As she dug in and peeled back the layers of Ramón y Cajal’s life—discovering his works of science fiction, his collection of photography, his storied and, at times, harsh childhood—she felt personally connected to late scientist. Like the freehand sketches of Ramón y Cajal’s neurons, Hunter’s project blossomed from an organic and gradual fascination, rather than a preconceived design.
DAWN HUNTER, WITH PERMISSION