‘You capture how I think’: An artist connects science and portraiture

The Wu Tsai Institute’s first artist in residence explores her subjects’ inner worlds — and creates opportunity for unexpected collaborations.
Prudence Whittlesey and another person discuss her work

Prudence Whittlesey, left, speaks to Marina Picciotto, a faculty member at the Wu Tsai Institute, at an event introducing Whittlesey’s work as the institute’s inaugural artist in residence. (Photos by Allie Barton)

In an event last month, the Wu Tsai Institute (WTI) presented new paintings by Prudence Whittlesey, who recently arrived as the institute’s first artist in residence.

Whittlesey, a 2020 recipient of a Pollock-Krasner Foundation grant, will spend the fall semester engaging in one-on-one sittings with WTI’s scientists, conducting colloquia to discuss the experience of sharing the artist’s gaze, and curating a capstone presentation of the project, titled “CounterIntelligence,” at the conclusion of her residency.

By engaging with art, we can reveal aspects of human cognition,” Nick Turk-Browne, director of the Wu Tsai Institute, and professor in the Department of Psychology in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, said during the event. “I’m hoping this event will open our eyes to other disciplinary perspectives on questions about the mind and brain.”

Painting of a woman seated on a chair

Whittlesey’s earlier work includes figurative portraits, many larger than life, that explore her subjects’ inner moods and states of mind. Her current work at the Institute is not traditional figurative painting. Instead, she focuses on capturing the abstract, silent interactions between herself and the subject. The connecting thread throughout Whittlesey's body of work is making the inner world of her subjects visible — such as with a series of portraits she painted of her first studio model, a young woman named Yasue (pictured above).

She was on the subway, she was striking to me, but it wasn’t just her physical beauty—it was how she sat in herself on that subway,” said Whittlesey during her presentation. “When she saw this painting completed years later, Yasue said, ‘Pru, you capture how I think.’”

Painting and a poem

Whittlesey described how a previous project focused on philosophers, including Tamar Gendler, dean of Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, led to the process she applies to “CounterIntelligence.” These silent one-on-one sittings include structured, intimate discussion with the subject about their experience and the paintings, later followed by small group conversations with others who have been through the process. 

Gendler, said Whittlesey, “was acutely incisive about my work when she walked into my New York City studio for a sitting in 2012. I stayed in touch with her throughout the pandemic and ultimately proposed a parallel artistic practice for studying the mind.”

Whittlesey giving a presentation on her art

It’s all what a person is — how they’re oriented, how their brain is housing information,” said Whittlesey of her portraits. “I’m interested. I want to know more.”

Whittlesey’s art on display at 100 College St.

The people who sit with Prudence become connected to one another in a surprising way that wouldn’t otherwise have happened,” said Kelley Remole, WTI’s managing director. “It creates a cohort of faculty from across Yale who now have this transformative experience in common with each other. This is a language for them to express themselves artistically and to have a common denominator of where science conversations can start and turn into collaborations.”

Five of Whittlesey’s mood and aura paintings

On display in the institute’s new home at 100 College St. are several paintings Whittlesey has already completed during her residency. “Here is an opportunity for us to integrate the active practice of artmaking with people who are active in the practice of science. We share our experiences and find synergy in the intersections,” said Whittlesey. “I can offer a unique perspective on how a brain coalesces into a mind, exactly what the WTI scientists are studying. This is all cognition.”

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