Though he came to Penn as a Ph.D student in neuroscience, Greg Dunn Gr’11 always had a strong artistic bent. First his fascination was with music, then graphic design, then paintings from the Edo period in Japan. “I always needed a creative outlet,” he says, and he found his latest muse right there in the University labs.
As a neuroscience student, “you’re just looking at these gorgeous images of neurons all day,” Dunn notes. As he examined gold-leaf-stained neuron slices, “I just instantly thought of classic Chinese and Japanese art. It was such beautiful source material.”
He began painting based on what he saw under the microscope, and by graduation, he’d produced numerous works that now hang in universities, medical centers and private homes. “I don’t consider what I do to necessarily be ‘science art,’” he says. “I’m painting something that scientists happen to be studying, but painting a landscape of the brain is no different than painting a forest.”
While the people buying his work are “mostly academics” — neuroscientists, neurologists, doctors — Dunn says people with neurodegenerative diseases have also shown interest. “I think it helps them to see something good about something they’ve been so frustrated with,” he adds.
When he’s not working on his art, Dunn meditates inside the sensory deprivation tank he bought himself as a graduation present. He says the darkness and quiet inside the tank can “really aid in reaching deeper states of meditation…things become very calm and you’re starkly alone with your thoughts. A lot of times ideas for my art will come to me while I’m in the tank. Without question, I always paint better after I’ve meditated.”
Is there any chance he’ll leave the artist’s life behind and go back to the lab someday? “No way. Absolutely no chance,” he says. “But I really love the scientific process, and it’s something that I try to bring into my art in various ways. And I wouldn’t be doing this in the first place without my background in neuroscience.”
With Dunn’s permission, here are some of the paintings he’s created, starting with Glomerulus, which hangs on campus inside the John Morgan Building’s Barchi Library (click any image to see the full gallery):