May 12, 2016

Mural Arts goes from Macro to Micro with Ben Volta and Gerald Lopez

by: Meg Wolensky

Mural Arts is known for some stellar, giant projects. We’ve had soaring pieces that fly twenty-two stories high, ground murals that cover the Parkway, and incredible imagery that wraps around the airport.  However, we don’t just take on big projects – we inspire projects that are so small they’re invisible to the naked eye.

Mural Arts muralist and educator Ben Volta is back at it again, and this time he’s showing us the power of the brain on a micro level with the help of Gerald Lopez, the Manager of Nanofabrication at the Singh Center for Nanotechnology at the University of Pennsylvania. Together, they produced an object that is quite possibly the smallest piece of participatory public art yet. We’re excited to share that Lopez printed a nano version of Volta’s 2013 project, the neuron train or “L Train” for Singh Center’s 2016 open house.

You may recognize the L Train from when it debuted on SEPTA’s Market Frankford Line. The original piece was created by Volta and a group of enthusiastic students from Waring Elementary through Mural Arts’ Art Education Program in 2013. Over the course of three months, students from Waring Elementary visited Volta’s studio to explore the functions of the brain, which turned into a series of drawings of brain cells and neurons. The project itself came together in a whirlwind of creative energy and it was Volta’s first time completing a project of this kind. Said Volta:

“The kids were doing a lot of brainstorming in other classes, so we thought ‘why not do a brainstorm about the brain?’ We started thinking about all the different functions of the brain, watching videos to learn about the power of the brain, and learning about how neurons are built in networks. As we were starting to talk about the brain and think about the brain, we started drawing these brain cells and the kids just kept going. It was exciting.

“We started to imagine the city as a living organism and the subway tracks that connect the stops as pathways connecting different people to different thoughts and ideas. The city is in the middle of the brain and the nucleus and all the tracks look like dendrites coming out of the brain cells.”


Photo by Ben Volta.

Volta instructed his students to draw “tons and tons of neurons.” So long as the drawing had dendrites, a nucleus, and an axon –  it was a neuron. “The kids could draw it as crazy and funky as they liked. As long as it had the components of the brain cell it was a brain cell.” The group researched more brain imagery and immediately fell in love with the colorful brain maps they found. Volta sought the help of experts in the field to help students understand more about the brain and thought patterns. The class had an incredible opportunity to Skype with experts at MIT, who showed them a slice of real human brain for artistic inspiration.

“When we started to scan in all of our drawings and add color to them, it started to reference all of these wonderful brain scans. So all these kid’s drawings of brain cells, as we were bringing them into the computer and adding these colors, had this eerie resemblance to the brain scans we were finding so beautiful and interesting. We ended up painting a huge brain cell on the floor of the studio to impress the scientists at MIT.”

Photo by Ben Volta.

The project ultimately referenced not only the science behind brain function, but also revealed something about the history of graffiti on subway cars. At first, the viewer might mistake the artwork for graffiti taking away from the appearance of the train, but when onlookers got closer they would realize that this artistic process was devised to engage kids with science and discovery. Although the project was only supposed to be displayed for three months, SEPTA agreed to keep it up for almost two years.

We Are All Neurons by Ben Volta. Photo by Steve Weinik.

The inspiring collaboration of young minds led to a further evolution in the project. This time Volta incorporated Gerald Lopez, a scientist at Singh Center for Nanotechnology at the University of Pennsylvania.  Volta met Lopez by chance at an event in Fishtown where they just happened to be seated next to each other. They struck up a conversation about a crossover between nanotechnology and the L Train Project. Volta shared:

“He was telling me all about his job and I was telling him all about what I was doing at Roxborough – how we’re exploring carbon and drawing with these molecules and taking over using this as a launchpad to learn more about chemistry and biology. He said ‘Oh, send me an image and we’ll print it in our lab!’”

Lopez printed a brand new iteration of the L Train within a few days, which debuted at an open house hosted by the Singh Center. Lopez used the train to show the technology and printed a replica at several different scales, the smallest being 1/10th the size of a human hair and visible only with an electron microscope. Lopez described the image like this:

“The image is created using electron beam lithography. The method by which to produce this image is called greyscale (or 3D) lithography where by exposing parts of the pattern at different doses, we are able to generate a pattern with variable height. In the case of this image, we took the pixel greyscale value and translated that into a specific dose. The result is an image that appears to have color variation when indirect light is shown upon it.”

Volta added:

“What was interesting was not, of course, the exact measurement, but we took neurons and enlarged them really big and then wrapped a train – so that was going macro. To make the print that Dr. Lopez made goes just as far micro. So as big as we went large, they went just as far small.”

This project in its many forms captures how art can transform the subject by altering its size. Said Volta:

“We’re living in a time where transformation happens so fluidly, and imagery happens as information on many different scales and in many different contexts – including large subway cars blasting through a city and miniscule things that you can only see with an electron microscope or with your imagination.”

Is this the smallest piece of participatory public art? We have yet to see another piece quite like it, but we doubt we ever will – at least without an electron microscope…

Additional content for this post provided by Carly Rapaport-Stein.

Last updated: Sep 23, 2016

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