Arts·Studio Visit

That time we hung out in an artist's backyard and made mind-blowing images with our brainwaves

Radha Chaddah invited Amanda Parris to her Toronto studio to learn a bit about her art — and science.

Radha Chaddah invited Amanda Parris to her Toronto studio to learn a bit about her art — and science

Amanda Parris in Radha Chaddah's studio. (CBC Arts)

My intellectual interest in biology ended in grade 11, and since then, I haven't thought very much about the trillions of cells that make up a human body. However, since meeting Toronto-based artist Radha Chaddah, cells have been front and centre in my mind. Cells and brain waves and electromagnetic energy. I haven't thought this much about biology since Bill Nye dominated my after-school hours.

Radha is a rare combination: she is both a light artist and a scientist. After going to school for a degree in film and art history, she went back for a master's in human biology. Her days are often spent working in a microscopy lab at the University of Toronto, and at night, she's creating art at her studio. That work varies in form, from photographic captures to larger-than-life public light installations that re-animate nature in magical ways. But just like her life, the content of each piece always exists at the intersection of science and art.

Last month, I went to visit Radha in her studio — a beautifully crafted and curated space in her backyard.

Watch the video:

Amanda Parris visits the artist in her Toronto studio to learn more about her scientific art. 5:47

Framed images of her photographic work adorn the walls, but these captures of embryonic stem cells and human skin cells look nothing like the Pepto-Bismol pink illustrations that I remember from my high school textbooks. Rather, these images resemble something out of a sci-fi film: intricately threaded, densely populated and dazzlingly coloured.

Radha and I sat down to discuss her process (which required me to brush up on what I learned in Biology 101).

We began with the cells. While working in the lab, Radha stumbled onto what would eventually become her artistic process.

Take a tour of Radha Chaddah's Toronto studio with CBC Arts: Exhibitionists host Amanda Parris. (CBC Arts)

After growing cells, she stains them using fluorescent antibodies which helps the average layman (like myself) to see their internal skeleton. She then uses microscopy imaging to photograph the cells and transforms those photographs into large installations.

That work eventually led her to the brain — "a vast array of connecting cells," as Radha explains. "Electrical impulses travel along the outer surface of these cells from neighbour to neighbour, radiating out across an immense network." Using EEG headsets (the same kind Oprah's homie Deepak Chopra uses to track his meditations), an app and projectors, Radha is able to project brainwaves out into the world.

Radha Chaddah at home in her Toronto studio. (CBC Arts)

As you'll see in the video, I put on the Geordi La Forge-esque visor and my brainwaves can be seen cascading over the trees. It's pretty magical.

We also got a sneak peek at her work on electromagnetic waves which transformed her backyard into what looked like a space and time portal out of Doctor Who.

Radha's work feels so intimate yet otherworldly because it gives those of us who don't generally spend our days in labs a glimpse at the unseen worlds that live within.

Take a look.

Checking out Radha Chaddah's light installations in the artist's backyard. (CBC Arts)
Inside Radha Chaddah's studio. (CBC Arts)
Radha Chaddah. Awakening, 2012. Fluorescent micrograph of neural cells grown from human skin. (Courtesy of the artist)

About the Author

Amanda Parris writes a weekly column for CBC Arts and is the host of Exhibitionists on CBC Television and Marvin's Room on CBC Radio. In her spare time, she writes plays, watches too many movies and defends Beyonce against all haters. In her past lives she wrote arts based curriculum, attended numerous acting auditions, and dreamed of being interviewed by Oprah.