I interviewed Laura Bundesen whose artwork is focused on the wonders of the human brain. Laura describes her fascination with neuroscience, her materials and methods, and how she overcomes the Critic Within.
Leslie: Can you trace, please, the beginning, growth and development of your interest in hand embroidery and in neuroscience.
Laura: I started embroidering in the 1970s in high school and was that kid who embellished all their friend’s jean jackets with rainbows, mandalas and stars. My quilting mother encouraged me by giving me a giant Encyclopedia of Embroidery Stitches and then in college I turned to experimenting with crazy quilting, a patchwork of fabric and stitching from the Victorian era. Fast forward several decades of continuous stitching, lots of art classes and experimenting with paint, cloth and stitching to 2014, when I was invited to participate in a fiber art exhibition in Northampton, Massachusetts. My partner, Izzy Gesell, an applied improv practitioner, suggested I try doing a brain and the first two neuro pieces were born ‘Neurofiberosis 1 & 2.’
While making these two pieces, I read a lot about how brains function and became increasingly fascinated by what we both know and don’t know about how our brains work. I also became acutely aware of how many people I personally knew who suffered from brain illness and injury – from Alzheimers to mental illness and Multiple Sclerosis. The 4th brain I created was a commission piece for the mother of a young woman who had a hemispherectomy (surgical removal of half the brain) 20 years ago as a remedy for her battle with uncontrollable epileptic seizures. She wanted a piece of beautiful art to represent her daughter’s missing right half of her brain. After realizing how my artwork could positively impact someone who had such a traumatic experience I never looked back and it has now been 6 years of making neuro art almost exclusively and I have an active audience that includes neuroscientists, neurologists and people with brain injuries and illnesses as well as their caregivers.
Leslie: Can you describe your basic processes from first idea to finished product, please? What have you had to teach yourself as part of these processes?
Laura: I usually start with an idea of a feeling that I want to convey. For instance, in my piece ‘Transformations’ I thought about symbols for change and looked for dragonfly imagery that I could incorporate. I collaged fabrics of varying colors, weight and textures into the separate lobes of the brain roughly using the functionality of each lobe to pick the fabrics and textures. I use embroidery to enhance the overall design and complexity of each piece working through my own aesthetics of color which are usually bright and often include rainbow imagery. Hand embroidery is both painstaking and an extremely slow art and I can spend an hour or more on a square inch. I find the process meditative and I really enjoy working with my hands so, while it is difficult and takes skill I have developed for years, it is also one of the most enjoyable parts of the process for me. Once the fabric collage and embroidery are complete, I stretch the full piece onto artist stretcher bars and then gesso and paint around the fiber art. This last process is the most difficult in that I have to take extreme care not to get paint on the fiber. I use a very small brush and work very slowly and patiently. Learning not to rush has been one of my biggest challenges.
Leslie: What are the significant developments/variations you’ve included in your range of art products? What were the challenges you had to overcome to develop them?
Laura: I have a very large range of products that includes original mixed media neuro art and then each of those finished pieces is also available as a fine art print and a dozen of them have also become notecards that I sell in sets. Several years ago I also began designing my Brilliant Brain Pin collection – 1.25 inch enamel lapel pins that are fanciful and artistic representations of brains. Each one is first designed on my iPad and then I send the designs to a company in China who manufactures them for me. Finding the manufacturing company and communicating with them has been challenging and we’ve had a few failures along the way. The pins are my best-selling item, and having them manufactured in China allows me to keep the prices really reasonable so that anybody can afford to own a little piece of neuro art. Last year, I also published my first Brilliant Brains coloring book using a self-publishing site which allows me to order the books on a print on demand basis. Many of the coloring pages started out as pin designs and now I am working my way through embroidering all of them too. The last product I’ve added to my collection is neuron and brain shaped earrings which I hand print at a collaborative print shop I belong to. The brain shapes are sourced in the U.S. on Etsy and then I use a heat press to adhere my original designs to them using my embroidered brains as the imagery. Learning how to use Photoshop and Illustrator have been big hurtles for me and I’m still figuring out a lot of it. Learning how to set up my own website and online store at LauraBundesen.com has also been a challenge.
Leslie: Could you comment on the intention/motivation behind some of your more quirky pieces such as ‘Curse Hoops’ and ‘Mindful Alchemist’ as well as your peace and justice work.
Laura: The political landscape in the United States was a difficult time from 2016-2020 and the pandemic just made things even worse. Misinformation, bullying, and political posturing became difficult to watch day after day. I used my art to cope with the turmoil that was happening inside my own head, my disbelief in where I saw our country heading, and also used it to express myself on social media and raise money for political and social justice change. I donated much of my art earnings in 2020 to causes like Voter Protection, the Black Lives Matter Movement, Immigrant Support, and to political candidates and causes that I hoped would bring substantial change. Some of the work like Mindful Alchemist was self-soothing and meant to protect my own piece of mind while the ‘Curse Hoops’ were a silly public outcry related mostly to the pandemic. I am most proud of two pieces created during the early days of the quarantine – and particularly inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement ‘Justice Now’, an embroidered mixed media piece, and ‘2020 Brain,’ a digital design. I used the proceeds of sales to donate to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the ACLU.
Leslie: Looking back on your early work such as, ‘Birth of the New World Lies within Us’ and ‘My First Forty’ as well as ‘Frisky Furnishings’ and ‘Frisky Mamas’, how have you changed as a person and as an artist?
Laura: Those first two pieces ‘Birth of the New World…’ and ‘My First Forty’ were made just for me. They still hang on my own walls at home and have only been exhibited publicly a few times. They were born out of a need to tell my story in stitches and paint. At the time, I did not consider myself an artist, though looking back now on the work, I know that I was an artist then as I am now. I just have the confidence now to share my work with the world. ‘Frisky Furnishings’ a business that centered on refinishing furniture, and ‘Frisky Mama’s’ a collaborative venture making bags with another artist, were business stops along the path towards finding my real voice as an artist. I think they were attempts at trying to figure out what I had the skills to produce that people might want to buy, but they didn’t have the seeds of passion in them that my current work with brains has. I had to travel down all of those roads to get to this place where I can say proudly ‘I am a neuro artist’ and where I know that I have something to say with my art and an audience that appreciates it.
Leslie: Tell us about your ‘Inner Critic’ and what you learned from Emotionally Resilient Living. How can creative people keep themselves motivated without losing the self-critical facility that helps shapes the finest art?
Laura: That’s an interesting question and I think I have had to befriend my Inner Critic and learn when its ok to listen to her and when I just need to tell her to shut up already. The motivation behind my Inner Critic needs to be questioned at all times. If she is just that scared little girl telling me I’m not good enough so I don’t have to try doing that scary thing that I want to do then its important that I don’t listen to her. If she is, on the other hand, telling me I can do the piece of artwork better and she is pushing me to excel then I think she is worth listening to. One of the most important things I’ve learned about my Inner Critic is to not make any snap judgments about a piece until I have truly finished it. Often, midway through it looks awful tome, and I think ‘there is no coming back from this and it’s a disaster.’ However, 9 times out of 10, when I push myself to finish a piece I find the beauty at the end. Sometimes the beauty arises out of the mistakes and it becomes something entirely different than what I originally set out to do and that is not only OK, it adds to my creative process and I learn and grow through it.
I came across the idea of emotionally resilient living while looking up the title ‘Kaleidoscope’ of a recent piece. Marquita Herald writes in her blog Emotionally Resilient Living “The beauty and magic of thinking of life as a kaleidoscope is that you take all of the moments of your life, the good, the bad, and even the ugly and shuffle the sparkly bits and pieces together to create a spectacularly beautiful image, singularly unique and precious because we understand that the slightest shift can quickly change the picture.” This really spoke to me about what I have been able to do with my own life and artwork and what I hope to continue to do. It is most clearly expressed in my piece ‘The First Forty’ which illustrates my life from birth through several devastating early life events: my parents divorce; my father’s death in a plane crash; and abuse, to my positive experiences as an adult traveling, partnering and being a mother, culminating in my identity as an artist.
One of the things I hope to give people through my neuro art is a hopefulness about the future if they are suffering from a brain illness or injury and a deep appreciation for all of the research going on in the neurosciences and neurological world. This feeling was the motivation behind the piece ‘On the Horizon – an ode to neuroscience research.’ Looking for the rainbow and it’s all around us as we discover more and more about how our marvelous human brain works. Each cerebral lobe is outlined in a satin stitch, and has unique features related to its function including the Hippocampus in the shape of the seahorse that it was named after and lovely dragonflies circling around the frontal lobe, symbolizing change and transformation.
ABOUT LESLIE TATE’S BOOKS:
- Love’s Register tells the story of romantic love and climate change over four UK generations. Beginning with ‘climate children’ Joe, Mia and Cass and ending with Hereiti’s night sea journey across Oceania, the book’s voices take us through family conflicts in the 1920s, the pressures of the ‘free-love 60s’, open relationships in the feminist 80s/90s and a contemporary late-life love affair. Love’s Register is a family saga and a modern psychological novel that explores the way we live now.
- Heaven’s Rage is a memoir that explores addiction, cross-dressing, bullying and the hidden sides of families, discovering at their core the transformative power of words to rewire the brain and reconnect with life. “A Robin Red breast in a Cage / Puts all Heaven in a Rage” – William Blake. You can read more about/buy Heaven’s Rage here.
- The Dream Speaks Back, written by Sue Hampton, Cy Henty and Leslie Tate, is a joint autobiography exploring imagination and the adult search for the inner child. The book looks at gender difference, growing up in unusual families and mental health issues. It’s also a very funny portrait of working in the arts, full of crazy characters, their ups and downs, and their stories. You can buy a signed copy of The Dream Speaks Back here.