These arresting and beautiful drawings of a woman's body through which the interior skeleton is visible represent the art and body of Laura Ferguson, a visual artist who has severe scoliosis … Her striking figures, in motion or in other positions of daily life, emphasize how natural and human is the body and encourages greater acceptance and appreciation of the variety and uniqueness of individual bodies … Ferguson's art can stimulate new ways of thinking about the body and disability, especially among medical professionals.
— Felice Aull, in the Literature, Arts & Medicine Database
Artists and scientists share the quest to inquire, to look beneath the surface and investigate the world and our relationship to it. For me, drawing is a mode of coming to know, in the artist-scientist tradition of Leonardo da Vinci.
Leonardo’s great anatomical studies were drawn from personal observation of human dissection – and take us beneath the skin of his living models, who still come alive as fully realized individuals, after 500 years. These drawings do more than illustrate anatomy and make it visible; they also present insights into the human body and the human condition that the artist gained in the process of making them.
This Renaissance spirit of inquiry is at the heart of the Art & Anatomy class I created at NYU School of Medicine in 2008, when I became Artist in Residence in the Master Scholars Program in Humanistic Medicine.
On class evenings, the Anatomy Lab is transformed into a studio, with art supplies set out on tables and a great spirit of creative enterprise. I’ll let my students tell you in their own words why the opportunity to “sit in front of a cadaver with paper and pencil” has such a powerful effect, and why, for many, “the intimacy of drawing these subtleties while training to become a doctor is somehow a humble experience, but also very profound.” The artists offered their comments (voluntarily!) for Art & Anatomy: Drawings, the book.)
To “look at the body with the eye of an artist,” one student wrote, made her feel “blown away by the complexity, elegance, and even beauty of the bones and organs that I saw when I changed my perspective. Laura showed us how to see the inherent beauty in bodies of all shapes and sizes, to focus on the incredible details and appreciate the amount of variation that exists in all of us.”
That’s exactly the non-judgmental point of view I hoped to instill – the recognition that our inner landscapes are unique and individual, and that art can help us to connect with them more closely.
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What began with one innovative class, and my belief in the value of drawing in the context of medicine, is now in its 11th year and becoming a model for other medical schools to follow. Art & Anatomy has inspired a book, a journal article, a short film, a podcast interview, and more:
Art & Anatomy: Drawings
Laura Ferguson and Katie Grogan, eds., Foreword by Dr. Danielle Ofri
with a student’s perspective (and cover art) by Hannah Bernstein
Published by University of California Medical Humanities Press 2018
Read "Cutting Deep: The Transformative Power of Art in the Anatomy Lab," by Katie Grogan and Laura Ferguson, in the Journal of Medical Humanities, December 2018
Read more articles and interviews about Art & Anatomy and my work at NYU School of Medicine
See a short film about Art & Anatomy: "How To Draw A Human Heart" directed by Emon Hassan for the series "Art in Strange Places" on Narrative.ly
Listen to “The Art of Medicine” on the Doctors Who Create podcast, episode #16 https://soundcloud.com/doctorswhocreate
Visit the new Art & Anatomy website - coming soon at ArtandAnatomy.com
More about Art & Anatomy / art & science
My interest in anatomy began with my wondering how I could visualize my own inner body when it was so different from those in the anatomy books. When I searched for images of scoliosis, they were hard to find. … and when I did find them, they were hard to look at: backs like mine presented as pathological, figures at their most unattractive, awkwardly bending forward, appearing exaggeratedly hunchbacked. When I researched scoliosis in the medical literature, I found it routinely described as “ugly.” You feel an implied judgment when your differences are seen that way. It’s an aesthetic of ugliness that equates to defectiveness.
As an artist, I came to see my spine as a graceful curve with a beauty of its own, suggesting flow and movement, with a subtle balance arising out of asymmetry. I knew my work could tell the truth about pain and deformity while still being beautiful and sensual.
To act as a scientist of my own perceptions, I had to develop a kind of detachment, to feel my own pain but at the same time view it in a neutral way, as something to be learned from, entering into it with mindfulness. This may sound similar to the “clinical detachment” that medical people are trained to cultivate, to keep from getting too emotionally entangled with the suffering of their patients. But my detachment isn’t from feelings, but from judgment. Instead of judging pain as bad and pleasure good, I simply surrender to it as a sensory experience that brings me a heightened awareness of inner body states.
Perhaps the greatest power of art is that it allows contrasting realities – beauty and deformity, health and sickness, pain and pleasure, even life and death – to be present together, without the need to make choices or draw conclusions. What better place to harness its power than in the Anatomy Lab, where the dissecting of a cadaver begins a process of emotional detachment for many med students. I knew that drawing could help them navigate its difficult emotional shoals and emerge with empathy intact. This is their first experience of having to hurt to heal, and as with my childhood experience, the necessity for hurting is mostly not talked about, but causes discomfort all the same – like all unacknowledged things. Simply expressing our ambivalent feelings goes a long way – and we can do that through the inherent expressiveness of art.
“Initially, the anatomy laboratory was a daunting place. Many of us had never seen a cadaver before, let alone dissected one. It was unsettling, to say the least. Through drawing, I was able to achieve a level of comfort in the lab that was previously elusive. It was as if changing the approach to them shifted the relationship we had with our cadavers.”
For another student, “creating art is a meditative experience, and the Art & Anatomy course helped me take that mindfulness into the anatomy lab and find beauty in what otherwise would have been a highly distressing experience.”
Seeing anatomy as beautiful can be profound. It’s a way in to anatomy that’s more personal, less generic – that sees and values individuality. The artists in my class are imagining the living body as they draw: looking at bones and cadavers but imagining the person who once inhabited them, and imagining the living, moving anatomy within themselves. This kind of imagining is the essence of empathy.