Tall and twisting, it spirals elegantly upward in dual shades of blue and black. One half is like sky, one half like a curving chalkboard. Each strand is painted with precise patterns, like molecular clusters or mathematical equations. The two sides are intertwined, distinct yet united. Each is incomplete without the other.
Called What Mad Pursuit, the sculpture, by Portland artist Kindra Crick, is an interpretation of one of the prime building blocks of life, the double helix of the DNA molecule. The discovery of the double helix, in 1953, was crucial to revealing how information is stored and passed on via a genetic code. That, in turn, led to the beginnings of molecular biology and genetic engineering, and to breakthrough advances in medical research on cancer and other diseases.
On Tuesday, October 13, the gavel went down on What Mad Pursuit at Christie’s London, sold to an anonymous bidder for $26,000. It was one of a group of sculptures inspired by the double helix that were offered at auction to benefit the new Francis Crick Institute, a hugely ambitious, billion-dollar-plus biomedical research center set to open next year in London. The auction, which included works by many British artists and such internationally known creators as the Chinese superstar Ai Wei Wei and the Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid, raised more than $500,000.
“There were twenty-one artists and twenty-two pieces, because Ai Wei Wei made two,” Crick said. “My personal favorite was Benjamin Shine. He had read that my grandfather had described the double helix as a twisted ladder,” so that’s what he made.
Crick is, indeed, the granddaughter of Francis Crick, and if you’ve read much at all about the great scientific and technological discoveries of the twentieth century, you know his name, or at least something about the work he did. He shared the 1962 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine with James Watson and Maurice Wilkins for their seminal work on DNA. Their work was based partly on research by Rosalind Franklin, whose death four years before the Nobel accolade kept her from being named as a co-recipient. Kindra is also the granddaughter of the artist Odile Crick, who painted warm, closely observed, very human nudes and unguarded portraits of women. It was Odile, Francis’s wife, who drew the first depiction of the double helix, a kind of curved stairwell that illustrated Crick and Watson’s groundbreaking paper published in 1953 in the journal Nature. Odile’s illustration, oft repeated in textbooks and popular histories, has taken on a fame of its own.
Kindra Crick is her own double helix, two-sided and complementary, scientific and artistic. She earned a degree in molecular biology from Princeton, and a certificate in painting from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and her art vigorously embraces scientific ideas. “In my artwork I’m interested in the study of the brain,” she says. It’s an approach that encourages large questions, the sort that theoretical scientists ask themselves: “What exactly is the shape of a memory? What does it look like? How is it formed?” What happens, to take it a step beyond, when you evoke a memory? The very act of recalling a memory, as Crick points out, leaves it subject to being changed.
When contemplating such phenomena, science and art seem to need each other, or to work best in tandem. Science pulls things apart, Kindra says, and art tries to put them back together: “You need to have humanities in any serious study.” An artist’s job, she adds, is to “call attention to the possibility. To let your mind wander around in that space.”
Crick’s mind has wandered around in several such spaces, from memory and the topography of the “cerebral wilderness,” to genetics, to the science of the mother/child bond, to empathy and what she calls “the chemistry of love.” Working in mixed media and the wax-and-resin process of encaustic allows her to create layers and excavations, levels of image that suggest the hidden valleys and rugged terrain of thought and perception.
“My process starts with the visual representations of concrete terms used in science — diagrams, data, molecules, and microscopic images,” she said earlier this year in an interview with Emma Snodgrass for the SciArt Center of New York. “Armed with these images, I venture into the more expressive realm of visual expression. I use trial and error, shutting down any inner critic and work intuitively (some believe by inhibiting the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex). Getting into the ‘flow’ of creating is what makes painting a highly absorbing and gratifying experience for me. Seeing how molecules are glorified when they change scale and how handwritten lines of text and images of cell growth become layered textures absorbs my attention. Because I work intuitively the process of problem-solving is a constant. I create a framework to work within, but leave myself open to the push and pull of composition, color and form. There is something wholly satisfying about painting my way out of an obstruction.”
Crick’s adherence in her art to scientific knowledge can create complications: if she spends a few years working on a subject, what is known about the subject inevitably changes. Science, as she notes, “is beautiful in the way it moves on.” Yet, that movement also opens artistic possibilities: “One of the things I try to put into my work is the thrill of discovery. There’s a giddiness to that.”
Francis Crick’s key role in one of the most fascinating and far-reaching intellectual detective stories of the twentieth century has been well-chronicled. Crick, who died in 2004, knew the importance of laboratory work intimately, but at heart he was a theorist – “a big thinker,” as his granddaughter puts it – and his personality was as big as his ideas. In an appreciation after Crick’s death, the neuroscientist and writer David M. Eagleman referred to him as “a brain-storming intellectual powerhouse with a mischievous smile.”
“Francis was never mean-spirited, just incisive,” Eagleman wrote. “He detected microscopic flaws in logic. In a room full of smart scientists, Francis continually re- earned his position as the heavyweight champ.”
For Eagleman, Crick’s protean mind, his combination of intense curiosity and deeply ordered thinking, was key to his achievements: “Few discoveries will match the basis of genetic inheritance, but that was only the beginning of Francis’ story. Francis went on to blaze trails in molecular biology, laying the groundwork for everything that would happen in that field over the next half-century. At a rate more rapid than even he would have guessed, unsolved problems in molecular biology were cracked wide open.”
“Crick cared about the deeper questions, the questions about life itself,” he added. “… (W)hen he had wrapped up most of the answers to his questions in molecular biology, he turned his voracious intellectual appetite to what he described as his second goal: an understanding of the brain. … Above all, Crick wanted to know how the brains produced consciousness.”
Kindra Crick, born in 1976, navigates some of the same territory, from the artistic side of the equation. Her fascination with the workings and possibilities of the brain surely has links to her grandfather’s research, and although she’s chosen art as her instrument of exploration, she’s also carried on the family tradition of immersion in science and technology. Her father, Michael Crick, started in physiology at University College London, then studied with Nobel laureates David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel at Harvard Medical School. “They studied cat vision, and I think my Dad was not excited about working with live animal subjects,” she says. He moved on to BBN Technologies, and computers, working on Arpanet, the precursor to the Internet, then to IBM, and on to Boeing in Seattle: “He wrote an article about this guy, whose name was Bill Gates,” which led to a stint at Microsoft (where he developed the first spell-checking program for Word), and then out on his own. “As an offshoot of this, he was always interested in games, and I was a guinea pig” – she and her three siblings were given a stream of video games to try out. Michael Crick invented a game in 1966 called Frogmaster, which a few years later was developed for Atari, and is an acknowledged pioneer in the video game industry, developing games also for Commodore64, Nintendo, Microsoft Windows, and others.
Francis and Odile had moved around the time Kindra was born from England to Southern California, where Francis became a fellow at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, in La Jolla. Kindra spent a lot of time as a teen in her grandparents’ house. There, she was surrounded by the vivid conversations of Odile and Francis and their steady stream of visitors, some scientific giants, some artists, an experience that led her “to immerse myself in the science world.”
And, from her grandmother’s influence, in the world of art. Odile Speed had been an art student in Vienna when the Nazis took over Austria in 1938. She returned to England and joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service, working as a code-breaker and translator of secret German documents. In 1947 she and Francis married. Six years later she sketched the double helix. In his 2007 obituary of Odile for the New York Times, Dennis Hevesi quoted James Watson explaining why she, rather than he or Francis, did the illustration: “Francis can’t draw and I can’t draw, and we need something done quick.” The drawing, Watson said, “showed the essence of the structure. And it became historically important, reproduced over and over.”
Kindra saw a different side of her grandmother’s art: her work in the studio, doing life drawings, nudes and portraits: “always the female form, from a woman’s perspective. Very relaxed.”
“And so I came from that,” she says. “I started with realism, and at some point I realized that I wanted to create something with less stability to the outcome. I like the journey. I like the idea that there are secondary takes on a piece.”
Kindra Crick’s conversation is engaged and rigorous, the product of a mind that thinks deep and wide and understands the importance of intellectual discipline. And, like her grandfather, she leavens it with laughter. In a way she’s a living response to C.P. Snow’s famous 1950s lament about the “two cultures” – the breakdown of intellectual culture into science and humanities camps, which generally talk past each other, misunderstanding and underestimating each other’s essence. “I feel as though art and science are always parallel,” she says.
Still, she jumped from one camp to the other – or rather, she took the knowledge of one camp into the other’s tent. “There was a point at which I had to decide whether I wanted to go into research,” she says. After earning her molecular biology degree, she went to work in a cancer lab at the Salk Institute. “I found I enjoyed the being around people, the thinking part of science.” But science’s slow pace, the deliberateness of the laboratory, didn’t feel right.
So, art. “I always have enjoyed making things,” she says. “The process, the physicality. And I think that’s why I do the things I do now.”
What she does has included, recently, creating a piece on the work of Linus Pauling for Portland Community College Southeast Campus. And that’s a whole tale in itself, because Pauling, the Portland native and double Nobel winner, was a crucial if elusive figure in the story of Francis Crick and his search for the key to DNA. Pauling, who won the 1954 prize in chemistry for his work on chemical bonds and the 1962 Nobel Peace Prize for his peace activism, had also been working on the structure of DNA, creating something of a race, at least in the minds of Crick and his associates, who amped up their own efforts to get to the finish line. Pauling had proposed a triple helix structure, which turned out to be wrong, but might have changed – history will never know – if he had had access to crucial research being done in England that aided in the eventual discovery. Pauling, however, was denied a visa by the U.S. government because of his peace activism, and never met with any of the English researchers whose discoveries might have set him on a different path. Like Crick, he is considered one of the most important scientific theorists of the 20th century, and Kindra’s PCC commission allowed her to explore the Oregon geography of his work: “How many people know that young Linus Pauling used to do experiments in the basement of a building on 39th and Hawthorne?”
The sculpture What Mad Pursuit (its title comes from the title of Francis Crick’s 1988 book about his adventures in pursuit of scientific discovery, which was taken in turn from John Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn) is the outcome of a vigorous back-and-forth between science and art. It’s part descriptive and part imagined. The shapes are cellular-like, Kindra says, “but I’ve altered them to do what I want them to do.” The basic shape was critiqued and approved by scientists: “It twists in the right direction. The helix is correct.” But it’s also stretched out, elongated: “I wanted to give it the idea of growth.”
And that, she believes, is how things ought to be. “With science art, you have to be very careful not to be didactic,” she says. “There is a value to illustration, but it doesn’t leave things open enough. It’s one to one. Then you only have one explanation.”
Crick created the surface of the darker strand of the helix with chalkboard paint, the sort that parents sometimes put on their children’s bedroom walls to encourage creative scribbling without having to scrub it off. The paint allowed her to work and overwork the surface, the way a scientist or teacher might scratch out mathematical problems or exercises for temporary purposes: “Because I was dealing with a chalkboard, I could write and write and write. And then erase.” She began working on the chalkboard part of the sculpture on August 30 of this year, the day that the neurologist and author Oliver Sacks, one of her grandfather’s close friends, died. She added a quote of Sacks’s to the chalkboard side, and later erased it, and it became part of the patina: a ghost in an evolving machine. Chalk itself, she found, wasn’t stable enough for the kind of permanence that the visible forms on the chalkboard side needed. So what she wanted to show through, she did over in pastel, using pastels that had been her grandmother Odile’s, before adding an isolation coat and then a varnish. The pastel, she says, gave “the illusion of chalk. Because that’s what artists are good at. Creating illusions.”
For the second strand of the helix, she wanted something that would suggest motion and be “just vibrant: the art with science.” Something, she adds, that “you might find under a microscope, but is also an abstraction of it.” What she ended up with was a piece in which “you can see the art within the science, and the science within the art.” What Mad Pursuit suggests genetics and their inherited qualities on one side, and ideas on the other – “which we also pass on”:
“One strand of the double helix sculpture uses imagery from my granddad’s letters and his many chalkboards. The complementary strand draws on abstracted cellular imagery I have been using in my artwork as a metaphor for infectious ideas. … When creating the vibrant blue and gold strand of the helix dedicated to art, I visually referenced my series on ‘infectious ideas,’ which explores the hypothesis that humans not only pass on their genetics, but that we have evolved and thrive because we also pass on our culture, knowledge and passions. Ideas are infectious, and, like a virus, they mutate and evolve as they pass on from one person to another. Art, in all its forms, contributes to this in no small way. So, the abstracted growing virus-like or seed-like forms changing as they are spiraling around are a metaphor for this dissemination and evolution of ideas, which metaphorically spread and grow.”
The concept has personal implications for Kindra, who is Odile Crick’s granddaughter, but not biologically. Her father, Michael, is the son of Francis Crick’s first wife, Ruth Doreen Crick, but grew up from age 8 with Odile as his mother; and Kindra, who traces much of her interest in art to Odile, has always considered Odile her grandmother. In creating What Mad Pursuit, she says, “I did have my relationship to her in mind. … She gave me materials to work with, and I learned to draw still lifes and from live models in her studio.”
Kindra Crick’s link to the Francis Crick Institute in London is a natural, by family ties, scientific interest, and creative approach. The institute’s goal is to spark breakthroughs in cancer research, partly by breaking down walls.
That approach fits with her own story. What Mad Pursuit, she says, “is dedicated to my grandparents, my aunt, and all who have battled cancer. The Francis Crick Institute’s mission is to speed the pace of discovery through collaboration and improve the lives of real patients. That’s important to me. It’s an inspiring vision and in line with my granddad’s philosophy of tackling fundamental problems.”
“From a creativity and science perspective, the idea that it is a hub is extremely important,” she adds. “They want to take scientists who are in different disciplines, and make them mingle on purpose. The space has a very open layout; you can see into the labs. The idea is to foster collaboration. As opposed to thinking about one tiny little molecule, you’re looking at the big picture.”
The idea that you can use art to move that process along invigorates her: “Thinking about that, while working at 2 o’clock in the morning, it gives you a sense of purpose.”
And what’s become of What Mad Pursuit, which was sold at auction in October? Its anonymous buyer has donated it to the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, one of the world’s great research facilities. It’s where Francis Crick worked when he was delving into the mysteries of DNA, although, as Kindra Crick points out, it couldn’t be called that at the time, because until the discovery of the double helix made it possible, the term “molecular biology” wasn’t used.
“You couldn’t have a more interesting context for this piece,” she says, smiling broadly. “It’s been an amazing journey. It’s one of those things that, at the end, you look back and you say, ‘Hey, that all worked out.’”
Kindra Crick explains the What Mad Pursuit project on Vimeo, here.