Artist Laura Ferguson developed a lifelong passion for drawing the body, both inside and out, as a child when she was bedridden with scoliosis. Five years ago she created an Art and Anatomy seminar in the Masters Scholars program, as part of an artist residency at NYU SOM.
The class, which includes medical students, faculty and staff, meets in the cadaver lab where gross anatomy is taught. Once transposed into an art studio, the setting provides students with a chance to engage with the dissection experience more creatively than in gross anatomy, where the focus is on learning the parts of the body and what happens during the disease process. The simple act of drawing, Ms. Ferguson says, encourages a more intimate involvement with the beauty, complexity, mortality, and visceral reality of the human body.
“These artists are imagining the living body as they draw: looking at bones and cadavers but imagining the person who once inhabited them – and also imagining the living, moving anatomy within themselves.”
“There is an inherent humanism in art, and a great power to communicate – to express things that can’t be as easily communicated in other ways. Art allows us to share experiences that go deep into the human spirit and psyche – the same places where illness or pain or differentness or isolation often take us.“
Ms. Ferguson brings her experience as a patient into the studio to encourage students to explore individual differences among body types. While she recognizes that students need to memorize organs, tissues, and nerves in order to become competent physicians, she stresses the importance of recognizing that variations in body types do not define the person nor the illness they may have at any given time.
This year, Ms. Ferguson organized an exhibit of “Art & Anatomy: Drawings” in the MSB Gallery at NYU Langone Medical Center, featuring 76 artworks made in the class. Ms. Ferguson said she was struck by the audience’s powerful reaction to the exhibit–for some there was an inherent discomfort, even fear, connected with seeing the inner body, but that became a shared sense of wonder for the viewers as they recognized the transformation of anatomy into art.
At the opening of the exhibit, Hannah Bernstein, one of the student artists, had this to say:
“When I created drawings for the course I tried to capture this appreciation for the beauty and variation of the human body. I learned to appreciate things that aren’t conventionally beautiful, like the curves of the femur and the intricate network of blood vessels covering the heart. I also learned that in general, real people don’t look like textbook illustrations. No two people are the same, and no one is ‘perfect.’ Each body has its own unique deviations, and this applies to what’s inside as much as what’s on the surface. This is an important lesson for any future doctor, and I’m grateful that I got to learn it from such a unique perspective.”
More on Art and Anatomy
• On April 30th, a slideshow of “Art & Anatomy: Drawings” will be screened as part of “Reading the Body: Live!”! – a literary evening honoring Frank Netter, with stage actors reading poetry and prose about the body from the Bellevue Literary Review.
• A gallery of images from the show can be viewed online at http://school.med.nyu.edu/humanisticmed.
• A short film about Laura Ferguson and Art & Anatomy was recently featured as one of its “untold stories” by Narrative,ly (http://narrative.ly/art-in-strange-places/how-to-draw-a-human-heart/).