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What Mad Pursuit – celebrating my grandad’s legacy through art and science

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by Cancer Research UK | Analysis

6 October 2015

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Kindra with her sculpture.

As part of our campaign to raise funds and awareness for the new Francis Crick Institute in London, world class artists and designers were asked to paint DNA double-helix inspired sculptures based on the theme of ‘What’s in their DNA?’

Here, Kindra Crick – artist, scientist and granddaughter of Francis Crick – shares the inspiration behind her sculpture ‘What Mad Pursuit’ which is being auctioned to raise funds for the world-leading centre of biomedical research.

When I was invited to produce a DNA sculpture it seemed like the perfect project. I have a rich family legacy to draw upon, and The Francis Crick Institute is a cause I’m really passionate about.

Encouraging scientific collaboration to help speed up the pace of discoveries that improve people’s lives is really important, especially for a disease like cancer.

This is the mission of The Francis Crick Institute. And it’s something I wanted to capture in my sculpture.

I studied molecular biology at Princeton University in the US, and then painting at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. And now, I find inspiration in the process of old-school science, historically recorded through handwritten notes and closely observed drawings.

In my art, I explore how the two cultures of science and art interact and I share a common wonder in the creative possibilities of the material and natural worlds.

Inspired by my grandparents’ partnership

My double helix sculpture, ‘What Mad Pursuit’, explores the creative possibilities of mixing art, science and imagination in the quest for knowledge.

Kindra_Francis_1977-8 copy

Francis Crick with young granddaughter, Kindra Crick, on a nature walk in 1977. Credit: Image courtesy of Kindra Crick

The piece is inspired by my grandparents’ partnership, and its role in the discovery of the structure of DNA. My grandfather, Francis Crick, is best known for his work uncovering the iconic shape of DNA. And my grandmother, Odile Crick, was actually the artist who first drew the famous image of the double helix molecule based on grandad’s research.

I see biology as very visual, with a rich tradition of detailed observation and communication through art. I wanted to express this, and capture the often unpredictable mystery of discovery.

Half of my double helix sculpture is a twisting chalkboard layered with the patina of science. I christened the chalkboard by writing, erasing and rubbing in the dust the words from some of my favourite scientists, including the late Oliver Sacks.

What I left visible for the viewer to discover are handwritten notes from my grandad’s letters and chalkboards, and I used my grandmother’s pastels to write down his theories and ideas.

One of the prominent images is that of a loosely sketched diagram of a double helix, which was taken from a letter my grandad wrote to my then 12 year old dad. This was just before he and Jim Watson had published their landmark findings in the journal Nature, and one can almost feel the excitement of discovery reaching out of those pages.

Other handwritten diagrams emerge as your eyes trace around the winding sculpture, marking several moments of discovery.

  • Watch Kindra explaining the inspiration behind her sculpture in this video

Inspiring ideas are infectious

The other half of the sculpture – what biologists would refer to as the ‘complementary strand’ – is a flourish of vibrant blue, bordered by a golden helix.

I’ve been using this abstract, growing cellular imagery that spreads up and down the sculpture in my artwork, as a metaphor for infectious ideas. Not only can people pass on their genes, but also their ideas, which metaphorically spread and grow. Inspiring ideas are infectious.

Odile, Franics and Jacqueline punting 1956?

Odile Crick, Francis Crick and daughter, Jacqueline, in Cambridge around 1957. Credit: Image courtesy of Kindra Crick

I cherish the time I spent with my grandparents, and the infectious ideas they shared with me.

I vividly remember spending all summer with them, after my freshman year at Princeton. My grandad arranged for me to be an intern in a neuroscience lab at The Salk Institute in California and took me to numerous science lectures as well as theatrical performances and museums.

Weekdays I spent in the lab, looking down the microscope at how the brain and spinal cord develop in an embryo from something called the neural tube.

Weekends were spent drawing in my grandmother’s sunlit studio where she would provide materials, hire models, and provide guidance. This informal science and art education was enhanced by conversations with artists and neuroscientists at leisurely lunches beside my grandparents’ pool. Discussions of vision and consciousness, or questions like “How do we perceive the blueness of blue?” ignited my interest in both subjects.

My grandparents encouraged my pursuit of the seemingly disparate studies of art and science. Years later, I would lose both my grandparents to cancer, followed too quickly by my aunt.

So I dedicate my sculpture to my grandparents, my aunt, and all who have battled cancer.

An inspiring vision

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 grandad’s philosophy to tackle fundamental problems. So I know he would have approved.

I hope people bid in the online auction and help raise funds to support this important mission. And it would be spectacular if a generous bidder might even consider donating my ‘What Mad Pursuit’ piece to The Crick.

That would be a fitting tribute.