Grey Matter: Your Brain on Art, A Personal Reflection

Art Windsor-Essex
4 min readJan 13, 2023

By Nicole McNorgan

Grey Matter: Your Brain on Art is an exhibition of a selection of recently acquired artworks from Art Windsor-Essex’s Collection. The artworks share the same monochromatic colour scheme and seek to answer the question: what happens inside our brains when we contemplate art?

Image description: The image above features Quinn Smallboy’s installation, Waves, one of the works featured in Art Windsor-Essex Grey Matter exhibition. The image features a row of black string hanging in front of a white wall. The strings are connected to the ceiling on one end and halfway up the wall on the other end and, seen together, they create a wave-like pattern. In the distance to the left of the picture, there is another piece of art on the wall. Photo by Frank Piccolo.

I had the pleasure of touring the Art Windsor-Essex (AWE) Grey Matter: Your Brain on Art exhibit as a student at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) in the Disability Studies program in August 2022. I am currently taking Disability Arts and Culture Production, which focuses on viewing art from the vantage point of disability studies. Disability studies rethinks the meaning of disability instead of disability being a problem or an abnormality offering representations of disabled people as integral parts of communities and politically engaged.

Grey Matter: Your Brain on Art. Curated by Julie Rae Tucker and Dr. Lori Buchanan. Photo by Frank Piccolo.

The AWE Grey Matter exhibit focuses on what happens to your brain when we encounter art. As I reflect on my experience at the Grey Matter exhibit, I have come to realize that different pieces of art and the many different meanings behind them. The Grey Matter exhibit and disability studies have a similar outlook, which is open and accepting to every piece of art and every disability.

Kara Springer, Ana & André, Untitled I & II, 2014, archival pigment prints, 2/4, 140.0 cm x 93.0 cm, Purchased with funds from the Lois K. Smedick Contemporary Art Fund, 2018. Photo by Frank Piccolo.

I never realized art could be so simple. There was one piece of art by Kara Springer titled Ana & André, Untitled I & II, a photograph of a strand of hair underneath the microscope. This was the most simple piece of work, yet it looked beautiful. The connection between this piece of art and disability studies is that even though that strand of hair was made to look very elaborate, it was just a strand of hair. Just like people, each person looks different or may act differently but deep down we are all human and should all get the same chance at life. Disability and mad studies are critiques of social contexts and power structures. Another piece of art that stood out to me was Quinn Smallboy’s Wave. “I like the idea of using less material to fill a space; the idea of creating boundaries, or a plane to divide a room with one small piece of material. That to me is where I find a lot of inspiration, and what I want to do more of, on larger scales.” (Smallboy, Q. 1979). This piece of art took up the majority of the wall by using black string. Each string fell separately starting at the top of the wall and falling down near the floor and was attached to the wall creating a wave-like visual. Some people could see an ocean whereas others saw guitar strings. The incredible thing about art is that everyone sees it differently.

Photo by Frank Piccolo.

At the Grey Matter exhibit, each piece of art had a QR code that you could scan on your phone. The code would then take you to a page where you could think of one word that best described the art piece you were looking at. Once you submitted the word it was put into a database that was displayed on a large screen at the gallery where everyone could see all the different words each person thought about while looking at the art. This research will be used by the University of Windsor once the exhibit is over. The Grey Matter exhibition website referred to the QR research method as similar to “a collective Rorschach test” (Art Windsor-Essex, 2022). The Rorschach test was completed many years ago to determine whether or not people were deemed psychotic or not. It was around this time that disabled people were mistreated — and, quite frankly, many are still mistreated today. Many different tests were done on disabled people, many being harmful. I found it interesting the gallery’s use of wording here and the way it ties into disability studies.

Each piece of art in the Grey Matter exhibit had a story to tell and it was very interesting learning about each piece. When looking at art through a disability studies framework, we realize that each piece of art is different, just like people. I came to realize that art is not made for the pleasure of the viewer, it is made by the artist to tell us a story.

This article was written by Nicole McNorgan. In summer-fall 2022, AWE collaborated with students and faculty from the School of Disability Studies at Toronto Metropolitan University on a work-integrated partnership. This program was supported by Co-operative Education and Work-Integrated Learning (CEWIL) Canada, the School of Disability Studies, Toronto Metropolitan University, and Art Windsor-Essex.

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Art Windsor-Essex

Art Windsor-Essex (AWE) is a non-profit public art gallery that uses the power of art to open hearts and minds to new ideas. Change happens here.