fMRI Decoration

Ten years after graduating with a degree in technical theatre and design from San Francisco State, I stumbled upon my very first paying gig as an artist.  A co-worker of mine moonlighted as an fMRI tech (her previous field) and heard that one of the doctors conducting study dealing with children was looking for an artist to help decorate an fMRI machine.  She remembered our previous conversations about what each of us did before our current shared job, and she floated my name.

fMRII reached out to the woman who was running the study.  She mentioned the restrictions of decorating the machine, (giant magnet means NO metal bi-product, and since they were only borrowing the fMRI machine at UCSF the decoration had to be able to be taken down and put back up.  I think the fact that I had never heard of a project like this before helped boost my confidence to try and make this happen.  How could I possibly screw this up if no one has ever done this before?

Terrible Mock UpBefore I knew it, I was submitting a contract.  Somehow my embarrassingly poor mock ups did not frighten off the woman I worked for now.  I didn’t have photoshop, so I had to scrape some knock-off program off the internet to mangle together my concept.  The Dr. suggested a space theme since an fMRI machine kind of looks like a spaceship.  For whatever reason, I thought it was important to be able to show that I could come up with my own creative ideas.  Clearly this was my first rodeo; I should have just given the customer what she wanted.  Somehow, my jungle idea won out.

Fabric Choices Once I settled on the fabric I was going to use, I started on figuring out how to create a flower that would obscure the face the of fMRI machine.

It was important that there was a lot of texture, since it would be up close in the face of the kids who were a part of the study.  I wanted them to want to touch it, pet it, as that is usually the first thing I want to do to any new thing I discover.

Figuring out a way to make the pedals rigid was the first challenge.  I bought fabric on the assumption that I was going to find plastic piping sturdy enough to help the pedals keep their shape.  I’m sure it exists somewhere in the world, but I was not able to find it.  This would be the type of thing metal coil would be perfect for, but alas, that material is not available to me.  When my original idea didn’t pan out, I had to improvise and gessoed the back of the pedals with several coats of Elmer’s glue until they were able to hold their own weight.

This got me thinking–did I miss an opportunity?  I was so fixated on texture when I should have been thinking about what the appropriate material should be to create the pedals.  So I started playing around with different materials.  I soon learned that plastic petals thick enough to hold their shape on their own were WAY too heavy.  Plus, the spray paint was easy to flake off the second I started picking them up. (I did not think to buy a top coat…)

So instead I used them as a form for my second material flower that I would make purely of cloth and gesso.  Also a flop.  Literally.  The material I used was too heavy, it would have needed undiluted glue before it started to become rigid, and even then it wouldn’t hold it’s weight and just looked like material soaked in glue.  Card stock probably would have worked, but at this point I was so much happier with the original material flower I decided to stick with that.

Next, I worked on devising a way it would hang on the machine.  For whatever reason I did not document the ridiculous contraption I concocted.  Since you can’t very well tape or drill into a 10 trazillion dollar magnet, I needed to create a rig that could be taken off and on again and did not otherwise damage the machine.  What I came up with was a series of straps: one that went over the top machine and had two sandbags at either end holding it taunt, and a second strap that attached to the first but rapped around the girth of the machine.  I sewed plastic hoops onto the first strap that the plastic hooks on the flower could clip into.

After that, I moved onto the drapery that would cover the body of the machine.  Since I knew I was going to need A LOT of fabric to cover an fMRI machine, I hit up the discount fabric warehouses in town.  It didn’t matter that the underlying fabric didn’t quite match, I was aiming to cover it with such a jungle scene that you wouldn’t be able to tell.  I also was specifically looking for upholstery fabric, since I figured the heavier the better to help it fall over the machine.  I did not think about how I was going to get this monstrosity over the machine.

I wanted a 3D effect that I thought would obscure the shape of the machine, so I epoxied all of the plastic boning I now had to the back of large broad leaves I had cut out and painted to make them stand out.  Also from which, cute, stuffed jungle critters could poke out of for the kids to find.

Lastly I worked on the bedding cover where the kids would be laying down.  The one thing the Doctor running the study was adamant about was she wanted it to be a school bus; similar to, lets say, a popular yet very trademarked children’s story.  I don’t know why, but it took all of my will power to finally sew this part.  It turns out I had worked myself up for nothing.  It was the easiest part to make, all I had to do was buy double-sided facing topstitch everything down after I had ironed it all on.  It didn’t even look that creepy.

Finally it was time to reveal the finished product!  I was horrified.  For the gobs and gobs of fabric I had sewn, it looked like a few rags hanging off of that enormous machine.  I promised that I would transform the room and I couldn’t even effectively hide the machine.  I was so embarrassed.  There was no way I could show this to the Doctor paying me.  I had to come up with something new.  This was a resounding failure.

I had to take a full week to pick myself up off the ground.  I have a very specific process for dealing with failure.  It begins with over indulgent self-pity; first the emotional break down, which leads into marathon pouting sessions, and finally finished up with whole pints of ice cream. Once I work that out of my system I start to problem solve and get back to work.

I would keep the flower, but I scrapped the entire drapery.  Instead, I would make a curtain that would hang the entire length of the room.  I went back to the fabric outlet and picked out a lightweight print that looked like it could be a jungle.  I originally wanted a fine army green mesh, but couldn’t find anything like it.  Army Surplus had mosquito netting, but I would have had to do a lot of sewing to just to get it to the size I needed.

I have the good fortune of knowing an amazingly talented women who agreed to help me out, and without whom, would not have had a hope of finished this project.  Dr. Lori Nelson, master quilter, has her own long arm and luckily for me, enough free time to help me out for a day.  Within minutes, I watched her twist ripstop nylon into two beautiful trees.

She sewed some leaves on for me, but I wanted the whole top half covered.  I had bought about 10 bags full of silk greenery, took the plastic backing off and glued every, last, leaf to the curtain.  I also transferred all the cute forest critters from the drape to the curtain, which now weighed in at about 7lbs.  Since all I could use to hang the curtain by were the stick on command hooks stuck to the ceiling, it was important that I keep the weight of the curtain down as much as possible.  The packaging said they could handle a load of up to 7lbs, and since it would be shared between several hooks, I figured I was good.  With the curtain finished, it was time to try again.

I was much happier with the result.  It was hard to be completely satisfied however, because all I could think about was what it could have looked like had I spent all of my time on the curtain instead.  However, if I EVER get a gig like this again… I will know exactly what to do!