The Artist in the Anatomy Lab

Laura Ferguson came to the NYU School of Medicine as artist in residence in 2008 and currently has an exhibit of her artwork in the MSB Gallery at NYU - Langone. In a previous blog post, Ms. Ferguson discussed how she uses medical imagery in her work. In speaking with her by phone in the days following the opening of the current exhibit, I asked her to discuss her work with medical students who study anatomical drawing with her during an eight session elective, 'Art & Anatomy,' in NYU's Master Scholars Medical Humanism Program.

In her work with students (as well as faculty and staff) Ms. Ferguson sees herself as a mediator between the world of art and medicine and between doctors and patients. Excerpted below is some of our conversation.

-Lucy Bruell, Editor-in-Chief, Literature, Arts, and Medicine Database

I came to NYUSOM with the idea that an artist’s perspective could be of value to the medical school community. This exhibit is a chance for me to show what I’ve been doing as an artist in the four years that I’ve been here. I've learned so much in my interactions with faculty, staff, and students. This is a chance for me to give back and to share what I’ve been doing, which was part of my original goal. My work with students has been a big part of that.

When I first came in, the first year, the students would study gross anatomy the first semester of medical school, and those who wanted to took my class in the spring semester. In other words, they’d have dissection in the fall, and then drawing in the spring. But after that, the curriculum started changing, and now they have gross anatomy spaced out over 18 months. And they may take my class whenever they want to, because it’s given every spring and fall semester, so they may be at different stages in learning anatomy. Some of them may even take my class before starting gross anatomy, so I become the person who introduces them to the lab, which I wasn’t expecting. But I've always thought that drawing is a great way to learn.

I basically learned anatomy through drawing. You spend so much time communing with the object or the thing that you’re drawing that you come to know it in a way that’s much deeper than dissecting it or just looking at it in a book. It’s a very different relationship to being with the cadaver, or the bone. Drawing in the anatomy lab is much more open ended; it’s just about the process of learning and drawing. You don’t have to memorize anything, or have a test afterwards, so it’s very relaxed, freer. There’s also a mindfulness that you get into when you’re drawing, that I thought would also be a good experience for doctors-to-be, just to have a different connection to the bodies. Another aspect is the idea of individuality, which is an important part of gross anatomy. The fact that there are all these different cadavers, all these different people, and each one is different from the others. The students get to look at different ones and see all these anomalous things. But when they’re looking at the anomalous things, it’s largely to see pathologies, or things that are wrong. Obviously they need to learn that sort of stuff, but my approach, especially as someone with scoliosis, is more to just appreciate the individuality; that we’re all different inside, just as we’re all different on the outside.



The class is held in the anatomy lab. When you enter, there’s a study room in the middle, with just tables. You don’t see any cadavers when you first look in. And then on the two sides there are two rooms that have all the cadavers. We first meet in that middle room, and I start them off with drawing bones. Next, I give them a tour of the cadavers, especially for the ones that haven’t been in the lab before, and when they’re ready, I let them start drawing in there. Sometimes we actually take out a heart or a lung from the cadavers on a tray, and they draw it. It can be a little tricky, because we have to depend on what stage the students are at in dissecting: when they've just begun, there's not much to look at or draw, and when they're almost done, the cadavers may be hard to look at. But we manage to find something to draw at all these different stages.




In the beginning, I tried to get the students to talk about the emotional side of being in the anatomy lab. Some did, but others were resistant, and would just say "We’re fine. After the first day we got used to it." Which is probably true on one level, but on another level, there has to be a lot going on - it’s such a profound experience. But when you’re drawing, you’re expressing yourself, whether you like it or not. Something’s coming out of you - especially if you’re drawing from a cadaver or a part of one. You’re bound to be, on some level, dealing with feelings. To let it happen, in an open, non-judgmental environment, has an effect. And students do talk to me at different times about the deeper issues of being in the anatomy lab, how they deal with that in different ways…

The biggest problem for students is time, so the class is a treasured thing. They can’t always make it to every session. But the ones who do come, I think it means a lot to them. I’ve been very amazed and interested to find how many of the students actually have some sort of arts background, or humanities background, and for them it’s a link to a whole other side of themselves that they may feel they have to put aside in medical school. So it can be very meaningful - their drawings are something they can show to their friends and family- they can make that connection to the other side of their interests that they had before they started medical school.

Laura Ferguson's exhibit will be on display until August 13th. An exhibit of student work is scheduled for November.

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