Photo by Jennifer Reynolds
Lisa Cain, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, is a self-taught folk artist. She uses memories from her childhood in rural Mississippi in her paintings.
Neuroscientist a self-taught folk artist
By Patricia Ruland
Published November 27, 2011
An acclaimed educator and renowned neuroscientist, Lisa Cain has conducted groundbreaking research in spinal cord injuries and has a long list of professional accolades.
And the longtime University of Texas Medical Branch professor has the distinction of teaching anatomy to every graduate there since 1992.
But Cain, a League City resident, also is an internationally acclaimed folk artist, who, through her paintings, tells of the rural South and of a community that nurtured her.
Cain, who is self-taught, depicts the world of her childhood in her exuberantly colorful paintings.
"The scenes of children saying their Easter speeches on Sunday, of a country outhouse, of people fishing on a river bank, or of individuals eating and having fun at a family reunion are embedded in my mind, my spirit and my heart," Cain said. "No fame or external achievements will ever be able to separate me from those images. I place those images on canvas."
Her book, "Art of the Spirit, The Culture of Rural South" demonstrates country life through her art.
When she was just a child, her father inspired her love for education and science.
"My father, Percy Lee Cain, was a chemistry teacher ? he is the most brilliant individual that I have met," Cain said. "He would talk to me about science and explain scientific concepts to me."
Despite all her accomplishments, Cain said her children ? sons Malcolm, 9, and Marcus, 19 ? are her priority.
"No matter what I do, being a mother comes first. ... They are my world."
Cain shares her thoughts about her life and work:
Q: Who are your greatest personal influences?
A: As I progress in age, I realize how blessed I am to have had three matriarchs in my life. My maternal grandmother, Ella Purnell, was born in 1919, and died a couple of years ago. She was a housewife and farmer. She was the hardest working woman that I have ever met. She rarely sat still. My paternal grandmother, Louvernia Torrence, was born in 1916. She picked cotton most of her life. I picked cotton with her when I was a child. I am blessed to say that she is still living. From her, I learned what it is like to be a strong woman. My mother, Bernice Cain, is a hard-working, regal and strong woman. From her, I learned how to be a lady, how to dress and how to take care of family.
Q: How would you define "folk art" as it relates to your work?
A: Although the method of folk art is considered simpler or more primitive, the complexity is in the meaning of the painting. The paintings represent the visions, the memories and the experiences of the artists, and this is very deep. When I first started painting, my colors were dark ? dark greens, browns and dark blues. As I developed as an artist, I discovered that I love color and I express feelings through color.
Through my art, I also tell the story of those whose voices may now be silent. For example, my painting, "The Cotton Pickers," portrays individuals with whom I picked cotton. The viewer may never know their names, or read about them in a book or newspaper article. However, the painting depicts how hard they worked and the pride that they felt about putting in a day's work.
Q: What is the heart and soul of your art?
A: The heart and soul of my art is my love of the rural South and of the people, culture, and traditions that surrounded me as a child. I absolutely love the South. I was molded by my childhood in Canton, Miss. When I want to relax, I go back to the country and ride by the church I attended; sit shoulder-to-shoulder on the couch with my grandmother, who is 95; go outside in the darkness of a country night and listen to the crickets sing, smell the scent of the rain as it hits the dirt, or shell peas or butter beans ... The paintings that are my favorites include those that depict baptismal scenes. The baptismal ceremony was a very special and sacred ceremony. I was baptized at the age of 9 in a pond ... I quilted with my grandmother; therefore, pictures showing a grandmother and a granddaughter quilting are special ... I like to see people having fun; therefore, I like the juke joint and family reunion scenes in my paintings ... I used to pick pecans with my grandmother and father ? my most favorite painting is called "The Pecan Pickers."
Q: What paintings best exemplify your connection to your community?
A: The paintings that best exemplify my connection to my community are "Sunday Morning," "Praise and Worship," and "Eating on the Church Grounds." The church and spirituality were the foundation of the community where I grew up. Church was the center of our society, and as my book states: "The churches worked together and were unified. They supported community activities, such as providing money for students to go to school and helping the poor." My first painting as a professional artist was of a preacher in the pulpit at a country church.
Q: What inspired you to write your book, "Art of the Spirit"?
A: I wrote my book to introduce people to my art. My art is from my spirit and it is a part of who I am. Yes, I have received educational degrees; however, my education is like ornaments on a Christmas tree, and they simply enhance the tree. The true substance of who I am was developed by my exposure to my community as a child.
I am a memory painter and a proud product of the hands that picked cotton and farmed the land. I am proud to have the ability to pay honor to the brilliance of those individuals of the old days, a brilliance that was not necessarily shaped by the pages of a textbook, but by the pages of life. Some of the people that I paint about were extremely intelligent individuals who never finished high school or college because they had to work or because they had to raise their families ... They knew how to survive with what they had. Every story that I tell is one that focuses on the wealthy inheritance that I received from my parents and those in my community, a wealth that does not rust and cannot be destroyed with time. I hope that through my art I can remind society of the importance of retaining some of the culture of the past generations.
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? Lisa Cain art