November 25, 2013
There are tribal tattoos, photorealistic tattoos, celtic tattoos and biomechanical tattoos. Then, there is a whole genre called anatomical tattoos. Chris Nuñez, a tattoo artist and judge on Spike’s TV show Ink Master, has said that this style is all about “replicating a direct organ, body part, muscle, tissue, flesh, bone in the most precise way you can.”
Danny Quirk, an artist working in Massachusetts, is doing something similar, only his anatomical tattoos are temporary. He creates body paintings with latex, markers and some acrylic that appear as if his models’ skin is peeled back.
The project began in 2012, when Halloween provided the occasion for Quirk to paint his roommate’s face and neck. From there, he made other anatomical paintings on the arms, backs and legs of willing friends, and his photographs went viral.
“The paintings started off very rough around the edges, having a ripped skin aesthetic,” says Quirk, “but as they grew, I started making them more anatomical, showing the adipose around the cuts and proper layering of nerves and vessels. I really started making medical illustrations in a new and different way than what was done before. I made ‘living lectures’ for lack of a better term.”
Quirk has his sights set on a career in biomedical illustration. He graduated from the Pratt Institute in New York in 2010, with a bachelor of fine arts in illustration, and then applied to medical schools. Without having some of the necessary science prerequisites, he wasn’t admitted, so he got a little creative. Kathy Dooley, a professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, asked Quirk to do 10 to 15 illustrations for her class, and he did a little bartering, trading the artwork for a spot in her doctorate-level gross anatomy course. It was in this class that the artist got to dissect a cadaver.
“Let’s just say, the books are much prettier than the real thing. In the books, everything is color coded and pretty, where as in the labs, everything was grey, with the exception of tendons, which have a beautiful, silvery iridescent shine to them,” he says. “I learned first hand that despite its drab hue, the body is a fabulously constructed machine. It’s like lace that can stop bullets—the intricacy of its inner workings are so fine and delicate, and yet the strength and durability behind each structure is unreal.”
Quirk likes to say that he now dissects with his paintbrush. To some extent, the subject of a painting is determined by the model, and his or her features, he explains. If he has a volunteer with a particularly muscular neck, he’ll add his flourishes there.
“When you find bony landmarks, it’s just a matter of hooking the right muscles up to the right places on the bones, and coloring it in from there,” says Quirk. Of course, the time he spends on any anatomical painting depends on its size and complexity. A full rendering of a model’s back, with not just superficial musculature but also the deep intrinsics, can take up to 14 hours to complete, though the average illustration demands about four to six hours.
One of the advantages of Quirk’s anatomical body paintings is that they dynamic, compared to other biomedical illustrations, which are static images. ”I paint my anatomy very precisely, making sure to match up origins and insertions, so that when the model moves, the painting moves with it, really illustrating what happens under the skin,” he says.
Quirk is trying to arrange some guest speaking gigs at schools, where he’d use his body painting to teach anatomy. He is also working on a timelapse video of a painting in progress, overlaid with educational notes.
“Aside from that, I really want to find a bald head,” he says.
August 28, 2013
O’Brien and naturalist Amber Hasselbring of Art-ecology have launched a campaign called “Tigers on Market Street” to speak for the butterflies that live in the canopy of trees that line the busiest street in downtown San Francisco. They are bringing the butterfly’s story to light using science and art as the City of San Francisco re-imagines the role of this hardworking boulevard in a project called Better Market Street. On blank walls and in Powerpoint talks given to groups throughout the city, the duo display photographs, paintings and fantastical collages of the butterflies and the urban world in which they live.
One of the options being considered for Better Market Street is to make way for a Copenhagen-style bike path by removing many of the London plane trees planted 40 years ago. O’Brien and Hasselbring are all for the bike paths, but their mantra is “bikes and butterflies.”
“This is not an ugly brown butterfly,” says O’Brien. “We’re talking the biggest, showiest, prettiest butterfly we have in the city.”
If you stand at the Ferry Building and look up Market Street you can see why the butterflies view the boulevard as a river canyon, their normal habitat. Naturalist John Muir also referred to city streets as canyons—he said he was more comfortable picking through an ice field than to be in the “terrible canyons of New York.” But to a butterfly, San Francisco’s city canyons provide a kind of haven.
Some species of butterflies need hillside habitats, but a tiger swallowtail lives in corridors on the banks of waterways. “Market Street is a tree-lined linear concourse that our species calls a street,” says O’Brien. “Through the point-of-view of the creature this is a river.”
To understand how a street becomes a river to these creatures, you have to slip into that point of view, says O’Brien. It’s not the species of tree that attracts them as much as it is the topographical lay. They patrol long linear things with plantings on both sides. “It’s a random accident that this street looks just like a river,” he says, “which is the magic of this story.”
They are also attracted to glades, which, in San Francisco, means open areas downtown that are protected by an initiative approved by voters in 1984 that controls shadows from tall buildings. The glades and nearby parks provide sunlight, water from fountains or sprinklers, nectar sources and an increased chance of finding a mate.
O’Brien and Hasselbring received a grant to conduct a six-month survey of the butterflies. This summer they have walked transects from the Civic Center to the Ferry Building to count them, observe their life cycles and note their nectar and larval sources. Thirteen is the highest number they have counted on any given transect, but that number is deceiving given that a butterfly has four stages of life: egg, larvae, pupae and sexually mature adult, or imago.
We spot our third butterfly after ten minutes of walking on a sunny August day. O’Brien explains that a butterfly has an 80 percent chance of being eaten in each of its four stages, which makes the one in front of us seem like a miracle. It lands on a leaf close enough for us to see the yellow and black stripes running the length of its extremely furry body, which explain the “tiger” in the butterfly’s name.
Hasselbring and O’Brien photograph each butterfly they see, then geo-tag the picture and post it on iNaturalist, an app to record and share observations in nature. They also use the images in artwork to help communicate the tiger’s story.
O’Brien, who describes himself as an Old World illustrator, has not always been a lepidopterist. His metamorphosis happened 15 years ago when a Western tiger swallowtail, the poster child of this very campaign, floated into his backyard and changed his life. To explain why he left a successful acting career to become San Francisco’s butterfly expert, he quoted Russian novelist and lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov: “When I’m in a rarefied land with a rare butterfly and its host plant all that I love rushes in like a momentary vacuum and I am at one.”
Hasselbring paints and engages in performance art. She moved to San Francisco ten years ago from Colorado and jumped into the natural side of San Francisco. Now she is the director of Nature in the City, a nonprofit that advocates for ecological restoration and stewardship in San Francisco, and sees art in the everyday. She considers all of it art—from watching the butterfly’s behavior to talking to people on the street to installing a temporary mural at Seventh and Market, which she did in 2011.
“We’re not butterfly huggers,” says O’Brien. “We just want to celebrate what’s already here. If a landscape architect had been paid to create swallowtail habitat on Market Street they couldn’t have done a better job.”
O’Brien and Hasselbring want the butterflies to be a part of an improved Market Street. They’d like to see more hardwood trees and planter boxes with butterfly-friendly flowers that will bring the butterflies down from the canopy where people can see them. They’d also like to design standalone signs similar to those in Paris that celebrate natural biodiversity in that city. On one side, the signs would illustrate the life cycle of the tiger swallowtails, and on the other side, they would list and illustrate all the other creatures in the downtown area.
“I’d like to give people in the densest downtown area these nature moments,” says Hasselbring. “With all the richness that we have on our hilltops and in our city, we could become the city of biodiversity.”
The Western tiger swallowtails of Market Street have ambassador potential. The showy species offers an opportunity to connect a lot of people with nature, and help them to see that nature can be celebrated everywhere, even in the canyons of San Francisco.
November 7, 2012
A few minutes late, I tiptoe into an alcove of the Phillips Collection, in Washington, D.C., where Brooke Rosenblatt is leading a discussion with ten museum visitors about Ernest Lawson’s oil painting Approaching Storm.
“Where do you think this scene takes place?” asks Rosenblatt. “Have you ever been to a place that looks like this?” She calls on audience members, who are all seated in folding chairs. The landscape of rolling hills and a stream lined with cattails seems to remind each person of a different place—Scotland, North Carolina, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, France, Switzerland. One gentleman in the front row is convinced it is upstate New York. “He obviously liked it,” he says of the artist’s relationship to the place. “It was lovingly painted.”
“Let’s step inside the picture,” says Rosenblatt. “What do you hear, smell, touch and taste?”
A man, sitting just in front of me, says he hears fish splashing in the brook. A woman in attendance hears distant thunder. And, another participant says she feels a precipitous temperature drop.
For about a year, the Phillips Collection and Iona’s Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Wellness and Arts Center, also in the nation’s capital, have partnered to offer an arts program for older adults with memory loss, Parkinson’s disease, the lingering effects of stroke and other chronic conditions. Rosenblatt, an education specialist at the Phillips, meets with participants, sometimes their family and caregivers as well, on a monthly basis; one month the group will visit the museum, and the next month Rosenblatt will bring reproductions of artworks to Iona, so that others who are less mobile can join in the conversation.
In the morning, the group discusses two to three paintings. Rosenblatt poses questions that might help individuals connect to the works on a personal level. A particular painting, for instance, may jog an old memory. Then, in the afternoon, there is an art therapy component. Jackie McGeehan, an art therapist at Iona’s Wellness and Arts Center, brings the participants together in her studio to do some art making of their own.
Throughout November, National Arts and Health Month, the Phillips Collection is displaying some of this art, created at Iona, in an exhibition called “Creative Aging.” The artworks are grouped together by monthly session and shown alongside a panel featuring the famous piece from the Phillips Collection that inspired them and a description of the themes discussed with museum educators and explored more fully in art therapy.
On the day I observe, Rosenblatt and other museum educators move from Lawson’s Approaching Storm to the next gallery, where John Frederick Peto’s painting Old Time Card Rack hangs. The still life, of sorts, shows letters, envelopes, tickets and a portrait of Abraham Lincoln tucked into a card rack, much like a bulletin board. Those attending discern that the objects must have held some meaning for the owner of the rack.
Based on the direction that the conversation takes, McGeehan chooses an art project. “Most of it comes down to my understanding of each of these people and what I think will be most beneficial emotionally. What is going to allow them to reach a little deeper?” she says, in a phone call a few days later. “A theme that I felt would be a good component to focus on was the idea of collecting and holding onto material goods or objects that remind us of moments in our lives.” In the art therapy studio, members of the program created “time stamps,” or art pieces that they can later look back on to remember this moment. Some people chose to respond to music, she said. Others created art or wrote letters to themselves.
Visitors to the exhibition will see how Pablo Picasso’s The Blue Room and Raoul Dufy’s Chateau and Horses inspired the program’s artists to convey mood through color, and Morris Louis’ Seal encouraged them to explore the themes of movement and direction. After studying George Luks’ Otis Skinner as Colonel Philippe Bridau, they created self portraits in the art therapy studio. On another occasion, participants examined John Sloan’s Clown Making Up, talked about “masking” oneself and then sculpted plaster masks.
“In recent years, a wealth of scientific research has shown the powerful effects that interaction with the arts has on health, healing and rehabilitation,” reports the Phillips Collection, in a press release. “For individuals with Alzheimer’s and related dementia in particular, studies point to the ways art can ease the devastating symptoms and lessen the anxiety, agitation and apathy associated with the disease.”
McGeehan has also seen firsthand how art can help the aging population communicate their emotions in a non-verbal way. “Art is a very safe, very contained avenue for them to express themselves,” she says. “People that have suffered a stroke may have an expressive aphasia where they are unable to communicate clearly or have trouble finding or saying words, so it has given them an additional tool to help them be heard and understood by other people.”
In her experience, McGeehan finds that art therapy helps people who are declining physically and cognitively and becoming more dependent on other people. “They are given a material that they can mold, shape and really transform from nothing to something beautiful,” she says. “That sense of control and mastery over the process for many people is very valuable.”
Rosenblatt wraps up her discussion of Lawson’s Approaching Storm with an interesting question. “If you painted this, what would you call it?” she asks. Without hesitation, one man says, “House in Sunlight.” Others agree. Although clouds are rolling into the scene, there appears to be a bright patch surrounding a single white house, and they’ve fixed their gazes on it.
If that isn’t a sign that art therapy helps with positive thinking, I’m not sure what is.
October 19, 2012
For a few consecutive years, as a kid, I put the board game Mouse Trap on my Christmas wish list. Hasbro’s commercials from the early 1990s made the game look outrageously fun. First, you build an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine, with a crane, a crooked staircase and an elevated bath tub. Then, once that is pieced together and in working condition, you use the contraption to trap your opponents’ miniature mice game pieces under a descending plastic cage.
I can hear the ad’s catchy jingle now: “Just turn the crank, and snap the plant, and boot the marble right down the chute, now watch it roll and hit the pole, and knock the ball in the rub-a-dub tub, which hits the man into the pan. The trap is set, here comes the net! Mouse trap, I guarantee, it’s the craziest trap you’ll ever see.”
Unfortunately (for me), Santa thought the game had “too many parts.” He was somehow convinced that my brother and I would misplace enough of the pieces to render the game unplayable.
Where was Mark Perez when I needed him?
Perez, a general contractor in San Francisco, believes the game of Mouse Trap is an important educational tool. He and a troupe of performers actually tour the country with a life-sized version of the board game, using its many levers, pulleys, gears, wheels, counter weights, screws and incline planes to teach audiences about Newtonian physics.
“I used to play the game a lot as a kid,” says Perez, when I catch the nomadic carnival man on the phone. “I used to put several of the games together and just kind of hack the game, not even knowing what I was doing. Then, that interest just sort of made its way into adulthood.”
In 1995, Perez began to tinker. At the outset, the self-described “maker” thought of his giant board game as a large-scale art installation. He scrapped his initial attempt a year in but returned to the project in 1998, this time renting a workspace in a reclaimed boat-building barn on San Francisco Bay. “I worked every day for eight hours and came home and worked for two to four hours more in my shop fabricating the Mouse Trap,” he says.
The crane alone took two years to construct. But by 2005, Perez had 2o sculptures, weighing a total of 25 tons, that when interconnected created a completely recognizable—and, more importantly, working—model of the popular board game.
With the “Life Size Mousetrap” complete, Perez and his motley crew of carnival-type performers took to the road, staging at times up to six shows a day at museums, science centers and festivals around the country. Prior to his construction career, Perez did some production work for bands and nightclubs in San Francisco, so he has a flair for the dramatic. He stars as the enthusiastic ringleader, and the show includes clowns, tap-dancing mice and a one-woman band (she sings and plays the drums and accordion) who sets the whole thing to music. This past summer at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, the goal of the Mouse Trap was not to catch a mouse (or a tap-dancing mouse, for that matter) but to instead drop a two-ton safe onto a car.
“I find that kids and adults both like it,” says Perez. “And when you get 400 people cheering for what you are doing, it becomes something that you want to do. I knew that I was on to something.”
At first, Perez was in it for the spectacle. Oh, and for bragging rights too. “I am the first person in the world who has done it on this scale,” he says. But, over time, he has incorporated science lessons into the act. “It sort of turned me into a physics person,” he says.
As the Rube Goldberg machine is set in motion, Perez and the other performers explain certain terms and laws of physics. For instance, when a spring that is cranked backwards is released and pulls on a cable, which then swings a hammer to hit a boot, the cast discusses potential and kinetic energy. There are also fulcrum points at play in the system. Then, when a bowling ball rolls down stairs, Perez points out that the staircase is an example of an incline plane. There are also opportune moments to talk about gravity, the workings of a screw and the mechanical advantage one can achieve by rigging several pulleys together. Esmerelda Strange, the one-woman band I mentioned earlier, has even released an album, How to Defy Gravity with 6 Simple Machines, with the rollicking explainers she sings during the show.
The whole endeavor is a real labor of love. The show’s cast doubles as its crew, assembling and disassembling the Mouse Trap at each site. Perez’s wife is a dancing mouse. She does all the costuming and a lot of the choreography—and drives a forklift too. Then, there are the production costs. “Just traveling with a semi-trailer costs $3 a mile. I bought a crew bus and that bus costs at least $1 a mile,” says Perez, who is working on getting funding through grants. “Then, you tack on all the extraordinary amount of insurances you need for these events. It just gets crazy.”
But the efforts and expenses are worth it, says Perez, if the Mouse Trap can provide real-life, unplugged encounters with scientific principles.
“You can go online and see all of these simple machines, but actually seeing it in person, watching a compressed coil spring release its energy to push a push rod to make a bowling ball roll down an incline plane, when you experience it and hear the clanging of the metal, it is different,” says Perez. “We make it fun.”