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An Alzheimer's Disease Researcher and Master Sculptor Thrives on the Interplay of Science and Art

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An iron worker inspired this Alzheimer's disease researcher to develop his craft of wood and metal sculptures, which often reflect brain themes. Outside of his research, he teaches art and art history.

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Dr. Snyders work in wood and metal is inscribed with names of children who have perished in school shootings between 2015 and 2018 and quotes that have driven public debate.

There is a story that Peter Snyder, PhD, likes to tell about going home to rummage through his childhood closest. There, he found an original 16-millimeter film of Jose Manuel Rodríguez Delgado's famous Bull Fight experiments under a pile of pajamas. Snyder's father, Daniel, was a neuroscientist and did a fellowship under Delgado, a pioneer in electrical brain stimulation at Yale University, back in the late 1960s.

Peter Snyder grew up in his father's laboratories, befriending macaques, falling into step in their social hierarchy. It was the natural flow of things that he followed his father into neuroscience. But the young Snyder also inherited some impressive artistic skills from his grandmothers, and pretty much split his time between science and art at Boston University and then University of Michigan, where he joined the Potters Guild. (His maternal grandmother, Sylvia, worked with stone and wood. His other grandmother, Belle, was a painter.)

While Snyder continued his graduate studies at Michigan State and would spend the first decade of his career as a neuropsychologist working with epilepsy patients, and then Alzheimer's patients, it was the celebration of his 40th birthday that made him rekindle his passion for art and design. By then, he was a ceramist of note—at least in his living room—but he had been dabbling and tinkering with wood and metal and became interested in the lost art of woodturning. He signed on to a course near his home in Connecticut but quickly realized that using a wood lathe and the hand-held tools—the wood spins very fast—was a recipe for disaster without one-on-one instruction.

Snyder went home after the class and searched online for local woodturners and saw some beautiful pieces in several Massachusetts galleries. He found the artist's number and called. “You don't know me but I love your work that I saw on the web,” Dr. Snyder said. There was a long pause...long. Quietly, Kenneth Dubay said: “What's the web?”

Dubay had spent his career as an ironworker “who could build anything with his hands,” said Dr. Snyder. Born and raised in Northern Maine, Dubay never attended college but became Dr. Snyder's greatest mentor and teacher. Dubay took up woodturning in retirement—he was in his late 60's when they met—and if he needed a tool, he'd just build it.

“He never had any training as a teacher but he was patient and kind and thoughtful. He would let me make mistakes and then he would gently point out my errors with good humor and correct me,” Dr. Snyder said.

Dr. Snyder became a regular in the Dubay household, and for the next seven years—during his tenure at University of Connecticut and then at Brown University—he would spend a “long, delightful” day every other week in Dubay's studio (which he built by hand, along with the log house he shared with his wife) and one weekend every month. Dr. Snyder was an apprentice in the best of ways. They would turn in the morning, stop for lunch, and spend the afternoon sanding the pieces.

“Ken taught me about my own style as a mentor,” he said. “He was selfless.” When Dubay passed away in 2011, his wife presented his apprentice with many of his handmade tools, including a long, thin gouge that is used to shape the wood as it is spinning. He keeps that gouge, with Dubay's name inscribed on it, in his car to remind him of his teacher.

While Dr. Snyder was teaching and overseeing research at Brown's teaching hospitals, he helped organize an exhibit on medicine and industrial design with The Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). This led to his co-teaching a RISD advanced studio course for six years, focusing on designing homes and products for older people to age-in-place.

His experience with Alzheimer's disease (AD)—working on AD drug discovery, cognitive testing instruments, and biomarker development at Pfizer, and then AD research at Brown and now the University of Rhode Island, where he serves as the university's vice president for research—helped guide the direction for the course.

He continues on as a sculptor. Many of his pieces include Purkinje cells, dendrites, and axons etched into his medium—wood. He can't help but meld his two worlds. He is now working on developing a retinal biomarker for AD and one of his pieces, “Quiet,” is made with Colorado Alabaster, cold-formed steel, vintage brass chain and beads and Osage Orange wood, turned and carved with pyrography.

The 16” diameter platter underneath the turned alabaster lamp is from live-edge box elder burl, with wood-burning of the superficial retinal vasculature of his right eye, in the region of the optic nerve head. The image was captured using an optical coherence tomography (OCT) scan of his own retina.

“As a clinical neuropsychologist and neuroscientist, I have always protected both time and educational opportunities as an artist. I see the domains of visual arts and the sciences as inextricably intertwined,” Dr. Snyder explains of his cellular passions.

“The visual arts are essential for conveying the complexity, beauty, organizational structures, and fragility of our natural world. Artistic expression affords science a vital means of allowing us all to appreciate the exquisite complexity of scientific data that are difficult to convey by words alone.

“Each day I am torn between the beauty and biologic complexity of our brains and eyes, and the suffering that Alzheimer's disease foists on my affected patients, research participants, their caregivers and their families. As an artist, I use my craft to study this tension. I work to create fluid forms in wood and metals that are reminiscent of organic, natural artifacts—ranging from cell assemblies to organisms to miniature landscapes.”

All pieces start with spinning wood on the lathe, but they are then altered in various ways – by carving, wood-burning, staining, and the inclusion of stones or metals. His 900-pound lathe, the size of a grand piano, sits at the sculpture studio on the URI campus.

Another piece finished in 2017 is called “Purkinje Cell Vessel I” and it is made with spalted maple with copper leaf and pyrography and curved ebony legs. Look closely and you will see a Golgi stain motif of a cerebellar Purkinge cell, based on a famous ink drawing by one of Snyder's academic heroes, Santiago Ramón y Cajal.

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“Each day I am torn between the beauty and biologic complexity of our brains and eyes, and the suffering that Alzheimers disease foists on my affected patients, research participants, their caregivers and their families. As an artist, I use my craft to study this tension.”—DR. PETER SNYDER

More recently, he is moving in uncharted artistic territory. His latest piece is on gun violence. A colleague collects decommissioned guns and has been donating them to artists with hopes that they create something to pay respects to those lost by violence. Dr. Snyder obliged, though it wasn't easy. He used ash wood with pyrography, plasticene clay, iron oxide wash and acrylics, and he inscribed it with the names of about 65 children who were killed in school shootings between 2015 and 2018, taking time to reflect on each of their stories. The piece will be part of a touring art exhibit on gun violence, although it has been delayed due to the current national lockdown.

“I was unable to get its design out of my mind any other way, and it reflects my anger and disgust at our society's inability to appropriately control the licensing and possession of guns.”

Most of the children's names have been covered by the clay, the iron oxide wash and red acrylic paint that Dr. Snyder said represents “the toxic, bloody effluent mass being released by the handgun.”

Dr. Snyder continues his scientific and artistic works, and mentoring students across these disciplines, in the department of biomedical and pharmaceutical sciences, and in the department of art and art history, at the University of Rhode Island.

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• More of Dr. Snyder's work can be found at www.honeywood.studio.