Sarah Teitel Wants to Paint Your Brain
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Sarah Teitel Wants to Paint Your Brain

A Toronto artist is using MRI scans to create unique portraits for her clients.

The eyes may be the window to the soul, but to properly capture her portrait subjects, Toronto-based artist and musician Sarah Teitel looks even deeper. In fact, she looks right through them—with the help of MRI scans.

It began with the brain scans her neuropsychiatrist husband would scatter throughout their home. As Teitel discovered the beauty in their shape and colours, she found herself thinking more and more about the organ that actually does the thinking. A Rennaissance woman who also works as a musician, poet, and journalist, Teitel realized she had finally found an art subject—other than abstract images and faces—that would get her gears cranking.

“[My husband] is awed by the power and beauty of the brain. And it is so awe-inspiring. Once I started, I knew I could keep doing them forever,” she said. “I find it easier to feel strongly about the brain because of what it is and what it does…. My feeling strongly is my brain at work.”

What resulted was her first solo exhibition at Hangman Art Gallery, titled “Brain Paintings.” It features brain images she got from a template program that doctors use for practice. She embellished them with mosaics, collages, and colourful backgrounds.

To Teitel, the show was a success. There were a few sales, and a few unexpected reactions from people who had undergone brain scans in the past.

As Teitel tells it: “It started with an uncle of mine: he said, ‘I had an MRI done, do you want my brain?'” Since then, she’s received about a dozen requests for custom-made brain portraits.

“Half are psychiatrists or psychologists, and half have had MRIs and have looked at their own scan and thought, ‘This has potential,'” she said. “When you commission a portrait, there is an element of vanity involved. It’s the curiosity in what someone else sees in you that you don’t see in yourself. The question is: what are you going to show me about my face? Whether it’s my external face or my internal face, which is my brain.”

Depending on the size or complexity of the portraits, Teitel can spend anywhere from two weeks to three months on a portrait—but the first step is an interview between the artist and subject, where they discuss topics like hobbies, passions, family, music, favourite seasons, places to visit, or anything else that gives Teitel ideas for capturing the person’s identity through his or her brain scan.

“I try to create a mood and communicate something ephemeral but specific,” she said. “[The conversation] does affect what I choose to use—colour, backdrops, the curvature of line, the shape, the palette. Together we try to draw out other elements that could go into the piece…. But I’m not a shrink, although I’ve painted several shrinks’ brains.”

Teitel is accepting commissions for her unique brain portraits for the foreseeable future, since she doubts she’ll tire of her subject matter very quickly.

“I’ve learned enough [about the brain] to know that I know nothing about it,” she said. “It’ll be a lifelong process.”