Susan Aldworth Diary: Drawing Angiograms 1999-2006


Location Drawings
Transition Gallery, London
26 July – 17 August 2008


I have spent the last seven years looking inside the brains of strangers as Artist in Residence in the Brain Scanning unit at The Royal London Hospital, I have witnessed the workings of hundreds of brains live on a monitor. I must have seen people’s innermost thoughts . My work is about the relationship of the brain to our sense of self.


I was taken to the Royal London Hospital on Christmas Eve night with a suspected brain haemorrhage. On Christmas Day I had a diagnostic brain scan whilst conscious:

You are lying on a bed looking up at your brain scan live on a bank of monitors.You are seeing the inside of your brain with your brain.You are thinking about what you are seeing with what you are seeing on the screen.You are looking inside your head while thinking, seeing,feeling – your brain is working while you are looking inside it. But where is the “me” in all this?

Luckily there was nothing wrong with me. I knew I had to go back and see it all again. Curious about, not frightened of, the physical body. This was the start of this body of work which was to become Scribing the Soul.

DAY I – AUGUST 29 2000 – September 2006


My first session working on location at the hospital was on Tuesday August 29th 2000 . I am back into the operating theatre where I was treated. Shut down emotions now. Just work. This is about looking, pictures ,ideas. I am sat behind a protective glass screen against the x-rays. There are four computer screens in front of me and a desk.  I lay out my pencils, brushes, pastels and paints. I balance my sketch book on my knee.

The patient is wheeled in. I cannot see her face but feel a surge of tenderness at the sight of the two toes poking through the holes in her surgical stockings. Someone switches on Heart fm. The theme tune from ‘Titanic’ blasts out and dilutes the drama.  I see a bit of blood as they insert a catheter into the artery in her groin. It floats up through the body into the brain.  Suddenly my monitor flashes into life. I work very fast – the images on the screen are constantly changing. I can see the ribs and the spine in soft translucent greys and the catheter is dancing up and up through the thorax towards the brain.  I can see the teeth and the shape of the mouth. I can see the whole beautiful skull. The machine clicks and gurgles and  strange  nearly dancing forest of arteries of the brain appear – a thinking, feeling, working, living brain.

The patient is taken away. I have spent the last hour looking inside her brain. I have learnt absolutely nothing about her.

DAY 2 – SEPTEMBER 14 2000

The next patient arrives and I draw the hands of the nurses as they work. The latex gloves transform their fingers into alien hands – white,dusty and rubbery. I watch on screen as the catheter goes up and up through the body, up into the brain then into a most extraordinary scene… The jugular vein defines a real landscape.  A large tree in the hills of the brain. I am drawing fast, making frantic lines on the paper, to suggest this mad jugular forest. Dr B talks about  the importance of being able to visualise the brain in 3-D when guiding the catheter around the cerebral arteries. You have to feel your way around whilst watching what you are doing on screen. You have to be able to visualise where you are in the brain. Dr B makes the same movements as I do when I draw.

Most of the procedures I witness are probing problems deep down in the brain near the brain stem. It is very dangerous work. A wrong move and you could blind someone, change their personality or even kill them. Drawing seems such a impotent profession in comparison.

DAY 3- TUESDAY 21 NOVEMBER  9.30 AM AVM to be glued

The patient is already anaesthetised.

A huge tube comes out of her mouth and they swab down the area around her groin to make a cut to insert the catheter. She has bled into the left side of her brain from an AVM, a dangerous group of interconnecting veins and arteries on the surface of her brain. She will probably never practice as a barrister again. She has a nine year old child. The procedure starts. Heart FM ironically blasts out the anthem “ I Will Survive”.  I watch the catheter float up  to reveal a large lump of squiggly veins and arteries. They are dark, textured like a melon skin, and sinister.

They are going to seal off the AVM with super glue. Paul calls for complete silence. Limp FM is switched off. He has just 80 seconds to insert the glue into the brain before it sets. We watch as Paul squeezes the glue into the catheter and then see it rise up the tube and into the brain. The small aneurysm fills with the glue first and then the AVM. We see the catheter being withdrawn down through the thorax and come out  – just in time.She is out of danger.

But what will the glue sitting in her brain do to her personality? Who will she be when she wakes up?

DAY 4  – 5 DECEMBER 2000


There is a problem with the blood flow in this patient’s brain. It means she hears a loud disturbing noise in her head all the time. I find drawing very hard today. I want to show that behind the brain on the computer screens there is a “self”, a person lying on the operating table. Colour seems the way forward. I soak the thick watercolour paper I am working on with water and drop pure Magenta, Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna and Gold onto the surface from some height. There are explosions of colour as the acrylic inks hit the wet paper. It is exciting, and I think I have captured something a sense of consciousness in these raw, harshly coloured pieces. The procedure had been a success and M P no longer has that maddening noise in her brain.

DAY 5   Tuesday 16 December 2000: 2.00pm


A four year old boy, C M arrives for a coiling. He has been complaining of hearing Martians talking in his head, and his mother thinks he is becoming a little deaf. He has a large fistula at the base of his brain. The result is C hearing voices.

The room suddenly is full of people and I feel like a voyeur behind my screen. CM  loses it – “I don’t want the Gas in my face” he screams over and over again. The fear builds up in us all.  The father, stronger than his struggling son, is torn between going through with the operation and following his instincts to take the child in his arms and run. Finally he forces the boy onto the operating table where the anaesthetist puts the gas mask over C’s cries. Swish swash, swish swash – the anaesthetic air breathes in and out of C’s lungs. I don’t know whether it is the tension  but suddenly my pictures start to flow. The introduction of yellow  watercolour becomes crucial.

It has been a long and exhausting day. I leave quickly as I don’t want to be there when they wake C up. I rush home to be with my own kids.