What Meaning do we derive from art?

Art Windsor-Essex
3 min readJan 13, 2023

By Amanda McBain

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?

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

Dr. Buchanan’s interest in the Grey Matter exhibit at Art Windsor-Essex is about more than just the stunning art pieces in the exhibit. As a professor in the Psychology department specializing in neuropsychology at the University of Windsor, Dr. Lori Buchanan’s interests lie in language and memory processes, how we obtain meaning, and aphasia. Aphasia is a form of neurodiversity that creates barriers to language expression and comprehension. These communication barriers often impact the quality of life of people with aphasia. Outside of her job as a professor, Dr. Buchanan runs a non-profit project called Aphasia Friendly Canada that provides training and resource development to Canadian businesses to help them meet the needs of people with Aphasia and has an interest in the arts.

So, it is not surprising that when contacted by Julie Rae Tucker, the head of Programs and Collection at Art-Windsor Essex, Dr. Buchanan jumped at the chance to combine her love of art, research on neurodiversity and meaning-making. As a disability studies student at Toronto Metropolitan University, I was immediately drawn to Dr. Buchanan’s research in this area of art and meaning as I wondered what insights this research could bring us about perception and point of view.

Left: Marcel Barbeau, Concerto, 1965, acrylic on canvas, 165.0 cm x 167.0 cm, Gift of Richard Corso, 2020. Right: Colleen Heslin, Ice Point, 2016, dye on linen, 152.8 cm x 203.5 cm, Gift of Leon Liffmann, 2020. Photos by Frank Piccolo.

What meaning do we derive from art? That is the question Dr. Buchanan is interested in, and Grey Matter: Your Brain on Art may help answer that question. This exhibit is not only a curated exhibit of beautiful pieces of art, Julie Rae Tucker selected specific pieces from the gallery’s permanent collection for this exhibit that would also contribute to Dr. Buchanan’s research on different ways we create meaning. There is a QR code for each piece and when scanned the visitor is prompted to enter a single word that comes to mind when viewing the piece. When entered, the word is then added to an interactive mind map display which is projected onto the wall as part of the exhibit.

You can participate in this research while viewing the exhibit in person at the gallery, as well as when viewing the exhibit virtually online. Dr. Buchanan will be analyzing the words in this mind map and conducting research on the meanings and/or emotions evoked by the pieces of art in this exhibit. The QR code and interactive mind map offer an innovative access point for many viewers to be able to access the art and be a part of the research while also providing a unique opportunity for viewers to think about the connection between art and the brain. Looking at this research project from a disability and madness studies perspective, I am interested in the insight this exhibit could provide in terms of how perception, point of view and lived experience could alter the meaning or emotions we derive from art. I am looking forward to reading Dr. Buchanan’s findings.

So next time you are in Windsor Ontario, stop by Art-Windsor Essex and take part in the research. Help Dr. Buchanan answer the question: What meanings are evoked when viewing art?

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.