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Perceptual Portraits

The ‘Perceptual Portraits’ workshop took place alongside the ‘To be Human’ [1] exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery, and was open to the public over 4 weeks. After drawing portraits of each other, both with and with, without looking at the paper, participants sat face-to-face around tables and placed their hands through a curtain into a box. Inside they found a lump of clay with which they were instructed to sculpt a portrait of the person sitting opposite. The resultant sculptural portraits ranged from simple smooth finger pressed forms, to heads with grossly distorted facial features. Post-activity discussions took place on how the visual result related to the perceived imagined form that was created in their mind’s eye. Typically, the features of the face were amplified in form, enlarged mouths and noses, while the overall portion of the back of the head and temple was much reduced. These strongly resembled the cortical homunculus, a distorted rendering of the human form based on the proportion of sensory processing assigned to the various bodily parts by the brain.

As with the ‘Is Seeing Believing’ workshop and the ‘Sciart Masterclass’ this workshop used drawing and sculpture as a gateway activity to defamiliarise, and reframe the senses stimulating a wider discussion on perception and self-awareness. Artistic methods were repurposed as tools of scientific investigation, as well as processes to be experienced, rather than means to an aesthetic end product [clay models in all cases were recycled]. It is this notion of the artistic activity as a perceptual experiment in these examples that sets the background for the work expanded upon in the next section.

[1] The exhibition challenged the idea that a portrait is made to capture the likeness of the sitter, instead the works presented works in which the artist attempts to “express their experience of, and relationship with, the sitter” Gallery, M. A. (2017) To Be Human. Available at:

Artist, educator, and researcher working between the fields of science and art.