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We opened our labs to a local artist: the piece she created is a metaphor for hope


What role does art have in communicating the essence of cancer research? We invited local artist Tia Arberry to the ICR's labs to create a piece of art inspired by our work: the result was an intriguing combination of art and science.

Posted on 10 January, 2017 by Helen Craig

The piece of art created by local artist Tia Arberry, inspired by her visit the ICR's labs in October 2016.

The piece of art created by local artist Tia Arberry, inspired by her visit the ICR's labs in October 2016.

Blood samples. DNA. Statistics. Scientific research into cancer biology might seem a long way from the world of art.

But perhaps art has a role in encouraging better understanding about the fundamental way science affects our everyday lives?

In October, The Institute of Cancer Research, London teamed up with the London Borough of Sutton's Imagine Festival of the Arts and Pint of Science's Creative Reactions programme. The mission? To invite an artist to visit the ICR and create a piece of art inspired by our research.

ICR researchers Dr Emily Grist and Dr Daniel Wetterskog kindly opened up their lab space to local artist Tia Arberry, who created a fascinating portrayal of both the devastation cancer can bring and the hope that cancer research can offer.

Our Public Engagement Officer, Helen Craig (HC), sat down with Emily and Tia to find out more about the visit and the art Tia created.

HC: How would you both describe your work?

Tia: I would describe my artistic style as adaptable. I often do detailed work, usually black and white with pencil or ink. But I enjoy injecting a bit of colour when I get the chance. I can also be experimental in my practice – some of my previous works have involved ice and sugar.

Emily: I am a medical oncology specialist registrar and I’m just starting my PhD with the Treatment Resistance Team led by Dr Gert Attard. My work involves studying circulating tumour DNA – small fragments of DNA shed by cancer cells that are detectable in patients’ blood – and trying to determine what this can tell us about a patient’s cancer and clinical response to treatment.

At Sutton Council's 2016 Imagine Festival of the Arts, local artist Tia Arberry talks about the art she produced that was inspired by her visit the ICR's labs in October 2016.

Tia Arberry spoke about the art she produced after her visit the ICR's labs at Sutton Council's 2016 Imagine Festival of the Arts.

HC: Tia, have you previously worked alongside a scientist?

Tia: Never. It was slightly daunting at first to be faced with introducing statistical content to a creative, visual project. But the challenge was fun and pushed me.

I believe that bringing together the art and science worlds is incredibly important, in helping to communicate the sometimes complex and challenging interactions science has with our everyday lives in a new and engaging way. Collaborative working educates while also playing with themes, ideas, research, practice and experiences.

HC: Emily, as a scientist had you ever worked with an artist before?

Emily: Not in this way. But I have observed how art therapy can help patients in a specialist cardiac and respiratory centre, as well as in an oncology centre. I think the practice of medicine is best delivered by combining art, in all its various forms, and science.

Tia Arberry's artwork, created after a visit to the ICR in 2016

Tia Arberry's artwork at the Imagine Festival of the Arts event (click to enlarge)

HC: Tia, what does your piece represent?

Tia: My main inspiration from my visit to the ICR was the devotion of the whole staffing team involved in the research and development of cancer treatment. It was wonderful to hear that the ICR is so closely linked with a hospital, connecting the practitioners and scientists to the patients. When Emily explained to me the work she did, I was bowled over – not only by the topic, but also her passion. I wanted to create a piece of work that celebrated this passion and the hope that the ICR brings for the future.

The artwork represents the positive growth which can grow out of the devastation that cancer brings. The black and white seedlings represent the cancer, with the colourful stems growing out towards further understanding and development which will ultimately improve the statistics of facing and surviving cancer. The multi-coloured tree over the glass on top is a representation of the many different branches of cancer and its treatment. It is also a nod towards how cancer behaves like a tree, with mutated cells branching off to create new and altered cells.

I also intended for the artwork to be colourful and a symbol of hope, potential and growth – the three main inspirations I took from visiting the ICR and hearing about its work. 

HC: Emily, how do you feel about the finished piece of art?

Emily: I really like it! I think it captures our discussion on cancer evolution with all of the different coloured tree branches. The cancer seeds in the drawing are all unique, illustrating the concept of cancer heterogeneity. I was most surprised by the colour. Whilst the cancer seeds in the drawing are very dark, Tia wanted to make the branches bright and colourful to represent how hopeful she saw the future of cancer research and our work here at the ICR.

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