Using medical imaging tools, this art lets you peek inside the mind of a stranger

The work of Toronto artist Catherine Heard reveals how tech can reveal hidden worlds and stimulate the imagination.

The work of Catherine Heard reveals how tech can reveal hidden worlds and stimulate the imagination

Catherine Heard. Video still from Myrllen: A Portrait: 2016. (Courtesy of the artist)

Short of cracking a skull open, there are ways of peeking inside a person's head. A CT scan, for instance, will reveal bone and soft tissue and blood vessels. It will not, however, generate a literal slideshow of memories — a carousel of shapes and pictures similar to what you see in the images below. Unless, maybe, you're examining something other than a human noggin, which is something Catherine Heard might do.

Heard's a Toronto-based artist, and in the last five years or so, medical imaging technology has become part of her toolkit. Two of her more recent bodies of work are now appearing at the city's Birch Contemporary gallery to January 26. Micrographia (2018) is a series of her make-believe micro-organisms — small sculptures and 3D videos that Heard produced with the help of Toronto's STTARR Innovation Centre (and their micro CT scanner).

And then there's Myrllen: A Portrait (2016), a work that begins with an oversized sculpture of an anonymous woman's head. Built from layers of found lace and embroidery, it was put through a CT scan to make the video that's projected behind it. Imagine being able to see a stranger's thoughts. Cranial cross-sections of the sculpture flicker like memories, revealing ghostly motifs in silhouette: birds, flowers, letters. (Watch the video.)

Catherine Heard. Installation view of Myrllen: A Portrait, 2016. (Courtesy of the artist)

So why turn a sculpture inside out?

"I think because it parallels the way that we understand the universe, that we understand things in nature," says Heard.

If you want to know how something works, open it up and see how it ticks. (Or put it under the microscope, or send it for a CT scan.) "Suddenly you have this revelation that in fact the inside is far more complex than maybe it looked at first glance," she says.

So for all that's revealed, there are still an infinite number of questions raised, which could be the starting point for scientific investigation — or, in this case, art.

"They both have this very intangible side where you can't grasp whatever it is completely," she says of Micrographia and A Portrait.

"One of my interests as an artist, really since the very beginning of my career, is the history of science and medicine. And thinking about how technology shapes the way that we understand both the human body and nature," she says.  "You can even think of autopsy as being a kind of technology. Until we started cutting into the human body, we didn't understand it. We had these very mythically based understandings, like thinking of the body as ruled by the stars."

Catherine Heard. Micrographia, 2018. Mixed media sculptures (plant material, Japanese paper, iron gall ink). (Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid/Courtesy of the artist)
Catherine Heard. Micrographia, 2018. Video, wooden cabinet, fish-eye lens. (Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid/Courtesy of the artist)

To Heard, both of the projects at Birch Contemporary are about "worlds that are hard to imagine" — things unseen (microscopic forms) and things perhaps unknowable.

Myrllen: A Portrait, for example, is based on a real woman who lived — and died — in a Tennessee psychiatric hospital. The name itself is a pseudonym, and there isn't much in the way of documents and records to reveal who she was. But sometime after being admitted in the '40s, Myrllen begged the hospital for a sewing needle. She'd spend the next seven years embroidering heavily illustrated garments. Two of them, a scarf and coat, are now preserved in museum collections.

Almost 20 years ago, Heard saw Myrllen's coat at the American Museum of Visionary Art. "There are those images that you see that they just put claws into your brain," she says. "They stick there like burrs and you just can't get rid of them."

"Her mind is different. It is, in some ways, a very broken mind. She had tried to murder her husband and ended up in this terrible situation. We don't have any medical records so we don't know for sure, but it seems likely that she was schizophrenic."

"So I was fascinated by this story — that in this horrible situation, [she] would have this creative urge and created such intensely worked pieces."

"The other thing that's fascinating, I think, is the way that what she creates reflects the workings of her mind."

For that reason, Heard copied one motif from the coat for A Portrait. It's a fallen and distorted figure, grasping for a crutch.

"We can't know her completely and we can't know those mysterious objects beyond the visible completely either," says Heard. "You're restricted to seeing them through technology or through imagination. And maybe the technology is a tool that helps to stimulate imagination in a particular way."

Catherine Heard. Video still from Myrllen: A Portrait, 2016. (Courtesy of the artist)

Catherine Heard. A Portrait and New Works. To Jan. 26 at Birch Contemporary, Toronto.


Leah Collins

Senior Writer

Since 2015, Leah Collins has been senior writer at CBC Arts, covering Canadian visual art and digital culture in addition to producing CBC Arts’ weekly newsletter (Hi, Art!), which was nominated for a Digital Publishing Award in 2021. A graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University's journalism school (formerly Ryerson), Leah covered music and celebrity for Postmedia before arriving at CBC.