BCA News: Summer 2019
Intersections in Art and Science
The worlds of science and art intersect in many ways. There is photography and medical imaging that reveals the beauty within the structures of human anatomy. There are bioartists who access science and technology to create conceptual works, technology functioning as an alternate medium. There are traditional artists who spend so much time in detailed study of the area of their interest within the natural world, be it flora or fauna, that they create works so accurate that they become rich sources of information for future generations. Add to that milieu of medical artists like myself, trained to make hand drawn illustrations to communicate scientific and medical concepts. Of course the distinction between what is 'art in science' and 'science in art' is not something we are bound by, and I have pursued a career that walks both sides of the line.
I stumbled across the Medical Illustration entry in a huge, thousand-page loose-leaf compendium of potential careers when I was in high school. Before this, I had discounted my ability to draw and was focused on science classes. After discovering this 'legitimate' way to have my cake and eat it too, I aimed for the Scientific Illustration interdisciplinary degree at the University of Georgia (Athens, GA, USA). I found myself shuttling across from one end of the campus to the other, life drawing in the art studio in the morning then dissecting cadavers in the anatomy lab in the afternoon. I shocked fellow anatomy students by revealing I'd been drawing a fully nude model minutes before and my drawing compatriots were equally dismayed upon hearing what hands-on anatomy lessons entailed. The two worlds of merged more comfortably when I was in grad school working on a master's degree in biomedical illustration (Johns Hopkins School of Medicine Baltimore, USA). My fellow med students got it – they fully appreciated the value of an accurate and detailed anatomical illustration.
My first 'medical illustration' job out of school was working for a publishing company typesetting biochemistry equations. While it was valuable learning the ropes of the science publishing world, it was far from the operating theatre I aspired to. When I was offered a position in the Austin Hospital's cardiac surgery department (Heidelberg, Victoria, Australia), I leapt at it. Feeling terribly inexperienced but extremely fortunate to have this opportunity, I jumped on a plane and threw myself into this new adventure. Mornings began with a 7:30 am catch-up with department head Professor Brian Buxton to review the previous day's illustrations, and briefing on what surgeries to attend that day. Scrubbing in and staying aware of sterile fields as I leaned over the surgical site to observe and sketch were new skills. In time, I gained the trust of the circulating nurse, and she no longer gripped the back of my gown for fear I'd tip into the surgical site while up on my stepstool. The scope of the book Professor Buxton had hired me to illustrate expanded to include contributions by surgeons in four continents, and some of them are still my clients two decades later.
Being immersed in the world of anatomy and surgery inspired me to explore the heart in different media. I had long wanted to make an anatomical heart locket that reflected what I found beautiful about this organ, so I set about gaining the skills required to create one. I was so pleased with this first piece, I continued… an anatomical cross section of an eye pendant… matched left and right kidney cufflinks… a uterus with pearls as ovaries. I began selling these through an online shop and noticed how people engaged with anatomy in jewelry form, so differently than they would an illustration in a book. My customers ranged from medical experts to the simply science-curious.
Often people have a special relationship to some organ due to their own experience dealing with a disease, for example a pancreas necklace for a person managing their diabetes. A woman in California gifted kidney cufflinks to her transplant team, and then a kidney necklace to her sister who had come over from England to provide the donated organ. A heart transplant recipient had heart cufflinks made to commemorate his run in the Transplant Games marathon. Medical professionals commission works as well. I made a special ductus arteriosus necklace (heart cross section with patent ductus arteriosis) for a pediatric cardiologist. The staff who worked with a retiring veterinary pathologist commissioned a pair of dog stifles with tiny cruciate ligaments included. While I am not the first or only person to make anatomical jewelry, I think my work connects with people in a special way because the relative accuracy in the work means something. Details are not added simply for embellishment but actually represent something real and beautiful—form that follows function.
I've taken inspiration from my illustration work into other media as well. We'll Always Have Paris is a life sized, unglazed porcelain sculpture of the bones of the human body, each labelled with a signee of the Paris Climate Change Treaty. It was displayed on a special plinth in forensic anthropology layout in an exhibition at the Museum of South Australia. As commentary on the (questionable) political will to affect change on a global level, it was far more powerful than any facebook post I could write. I explored the subjects of medical consent, ethics and identity in the age of biotechnology in a sparsely worded, ten plate fairytale called, The Pig Price, a Xenographic Tale. This hand coloured, traditionally printed work was commissioned by RMIT for an exhibition titled My Monster, the Animal Human Hybrid. Again, I saw how effective art can be, provoking questions and discussion, engaging an audience perhaps unlikely to read about the subject of animal to human organ transplantation in a journal or science section of the newspaper.
In the past few years, I have used outdoor walls as public canvases on which to create art against plastic pollution, I've painted the covers of a series of books to riff on the metaphorical vs the anatomical 'broken heart'. And I'm currently sculpting a series of models of surgeons' hands holding human hearts to be cast into bronze. These works are inspired and informed by my work as a medical illustrator, and in turn influence the energy and style I bring to my illustration. Today, as I work on an illustration depicting 3D printing scaffolds used in bone defect grafting, I can't help thinking of how similar printed scaffolds might work as components in a new sculpture—but I'll leave that for another day.
Beth Croce is a medical artist based in Melbourne, Australia. To see Beth's works go to:
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