The brain in technicolour: MRI scan inspires innovative artwork at Royal Free hospital

PUBLISHED: 10:51 29 November 2014

Pete Wickham and artist Tom Wilkinson with the Meditating Brain

Pete Wickham and artist Tom Wilkinson with the Meditating Brain

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Nathalie Raffray investigates a stained glass hospital artwork inspired by Buddhism and technology.

The waiting room of the Royal Free’s radiology department is graced with a striking piece of stained glass which may help patients feel at ease. The Meditating Brain by artist Tom Wilkinson is an image of an actual MRI scan taken when the subject was in deep meditation.

“I had a friend who died about 20 years ago, who the artwork is dedicated to,” explains Wilkinson.

“He came up with this idea that he wanted to do a stained glass panel of one of his migraines and I just 
thought it was such a good idea that it kept with me all these years. When I saw the commission, I came up with the meditating side of things.”

The project, commissioned by the Hampstead hospital through a tendering process, took two years 
to compete. It was a new departure for the 58-year-old from Kensal Green, who usually makes mechanical art - although his father used to teach stained glass at Wimbledon Art School.

It was a member of the radiology staff who offered their brain for the image, which helped because they were familiar with the machine.

“It would be very hard (for a patient) to meditate in a scanner because they’re noisy and oppressive. It was also good to have somebody in the team as they’re so pushed for time they could just slip it in between scanning ill people.”

To make the artwork, he enlarged the scan, then traced it out onto paper, copying all the colours exactly as he saw them. A technical consultant helped him get to grips with the glass.

“The technology to cut the glass was quite a journey in itself because they use waterjet cutting, which allows you to cut very small pieces of glass very precisely, which you couldn’t really do by hand because it would break.”

When the picture was first mounted on a light box, reception staff had no idea what it was.

“None of them knew it was a real meditating brain or real stained glass, so a sign went up next to it. People really like it. The egg shape and colours helps them relax.”

For the radiology teams there is scientific proof of a reduction of activity and blood flow in the brain area while meditating which says Wilkinson, gives a sense of orientation in time and space.

“Glass is a perfect medium for this as it has a spiritual attachment. It is the typical art in church windows and it was nice to walk away from this artwork knowing that it was kind of permanent.”

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