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.
July 23, 2013
The idea came to Volker Steger while he was riding his bike from Munich to Milan. For an upcoming assignment with an Italian magazine, the German photographer was instructed to take portraits of a dozen Nobel Prize winners in science. His subjects would sit on his kitchen chair, and, to bubble up their personalities, he would ask them Proust-style questions. But, what if after the commercial shoot, while he still had the Nobel laureates in his presence, he ran his own artistic experiment?
Steger gave it a whirl. He handed the scientists large pieces of white paper and some crayons and asked them, on the spot, to draw their award-winning discoveries. Once they finished, he photographed them with their sketches in poses of their choosing.
“The idea was, basically, to portray them in a way that was fun, personal and creative,” says Steger. “I wanted to visually link them directly to their discoveries.”
Pleasantly surprised with the results, Steger increased his sample size. For several years, starting in 2006, he attended the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, an annual event in Lindau, Germany, where Nobel winners in physics, chemistry and physiology or medicine meet with students and young researchers. He pulled Nobel winners aside and, in a temporary studio with a white backdrop, presented the task.
“Nobody gets a prior warning. That is essential. I don’t want to get another Powerpoint presentation,” says Steger. “They come in, surprised by the lights and the setup. Then, I simply ask them to ‘make a drawing of what you got the Nobel Prize for.’”
Steger’s 50 portraits of Nobel winners and their illustrations are featured in a book, Sketches of Science, and a traveling exhibition of the same title organized by the Nobel Museum. The exhibition is on display at Mainau Castle in Germany through August 25, 2013, and will head to Singapore from there.
Some of the Nobel laureates scrawled scientific formulas on the poster-sized paper. Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, Nobel Prize winner for physiology or medicine in 2008, drew the human immunodeficiency virus, looking somewhat like a Ferris wheel, to depict her and her colleagues’ discovery of the pathogen responsible for AIDS. And, Elizabeth Blackburn, the 2009 winner in the same category, depicted her discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase in a series of doodles, connected by arrows and brought to life with exclamation points, happy and sad faces and sound effects.
Sir Martin Evans, the 2007 winner in physiology and medicine, needed two pieces of paper to communicate his work with embryonic stem cells. On the second sheet, he drew a mouse—a critter to which he is forever indebted (Evans introduced specific gene modifications in lab mice using embryonic stem cells). Leon Lederman skipped over his neutrino beam method and discovery of the muon neutrino, which earned him the 1988 prize in physics, entirely, and instead drew three figures celebrating. Above one figure is a speech bubble that says, “We got it!” And standing nearby is a female figure with a similar bubble containing three red hearts. Apparently, Lederman’s groundbreaking work won him the favor of a lady, as well as a Nobel.
The atmosphere at the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings is relaxed and creative, making it perfectly conducive for the project. ”I had only a few Nobels that turned down my request—maybe three out of 70,” says the photographer. “One said he was too old to draw.”
In his many shoots, Steger learned that most Nobel winners don’t actually like to be photographed as great thinkers musing in armchairs. Many held their sketches in front of their chests or their faces, and others showed more spunk. Robert Laughlin, the 1998 winner in physics, bit down on the corner of his drawing and used his free hand to point to an equation. Sir Harold Kroto, the 1996 Nobel winner in chemistry, made as if he was kicking his buckyball, a carbon molecule with the chemical formula C60 that looks like a soccer ball.
“Nobel laureates differ in their character just as much as they do in their discoveries,” says Steger.
Sir Timothy Hunt, the 2001 Nobel Prize winner in physiology or medicine, in his introduction to Sketches of Science, writes, ”There’s a playfulness about these portraits that’s quite beguiling, and unlike most official portraits of these distinguished people, there are hints that they don’t all take themselves that seriously, knowing very well that great discoveries result from a considerable degree of luck, as well as prepared minds.”
For the exhibition, the Nobel Museum pairs audio recordings of the laureates explaining their discoveries with the portraits. Listen to these recordings, found under the portraits in this post.
But it’s the picture—in this case, the picture of a picture with its artist—that makes Steger’s work so compelling. As Hunt explains, “What the photographs mainly seem to radiate is the fun of doing science.”
July 19, 2013
Norman Barker was fresh out of the Maryland Institute College of Art when he got an assignment to photograph a kidney. The human kidney, extracted during an autopsy, was riddled with cysts, a sign of polycystic kidney disease.
“The physician told me to make sure that it’s ‘beautiful’ because it was being used for publication in a prestigious medical journal,” writes Barker in his latest book, Hidden Beauty: Exploring the Aesthetics of Medical Science. “I can remember thinking to myself; this doctor is crazy, how am I going to make this sickly red specimen look beautiful?”
Thirty years later, the medical photographer and associate professor of pathology and art at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Medicine will tell you that debilitating human diseases can actually be quite photogenic under the microscope, particularly when the professionals studying them use color stains to enhance different shapes and patterns.
“Beauty may be seen as the delicate lacework of cells within the normal human brain, reminiscent of a Jackson Pollock masterpiece, the vibrant colored chromosomes generated by spectral karyotyping that reminded one of our colleagues of the childhood game LITE-BRITE or the multitude of colors and textures formed by fungal organisms in a microbiology lab,” says Christine Iacobuzio-Donahue, a pathologist at the Johns Hopkins Hospital who diagnoses gastrointestinal diseases.
Barker and Iacobuzio-Donahue share in interest in how medical photography can take diseased tissue and render it otherworldly, abstract, vibrant and thought-provoking. Together, they collected nearly 100 images of human diseases and other ailments from more than 60 medical science professionals for Hidden Beauty, a book and accompanying exhibition. In each image, there is an underlying tension. The jarring moment, of course, is when viewers realize that the subject of the lovely image before them is something that can cause so much pain and distress.
Here is a selection from Hidden Beauty:
Research shows that close to 50 percent of those over 85 years in age have Alzheimer’s, a degenerative neurological disorder that causes dementia. Diagnosing the disease can be tough—the only true test to confirm that a patient has Alzheimer’s is done post-mortem. A doctor collects a sample of brain tissue, stains it and looks for abnormal clusters of protein called amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. In this sample (above) of brain tissue, the brown splotches are amyloid plaques.
A person’s stomach produces acids to help digest food, but if those acids enter the esophagus, one can be in for a real treat: raging heartburn. Gastroesophageal reflux, in some cases, leads to Barrett’s esophagus, a condition where cells from the small intestine start popping up in the lower esophagus, and Barrett’s esophagus can be a precursor to esophageal cancer. The biopsy (above) of the lining of an esophagus has dark blue cells, signaling that this person has Barrett’s.
The electron micrograph (above) shows what happens in the circulatory system of someone with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). The blue in the image is a white blood cell, referred to as a CD4 positive T cell, and the cell is sprouting a new HIV particle, the polyp shown here in red and orange.
This pile (above) of what might look like nuts, fossils or even corals is actually of gallstones. Gallstones can form in a person’s gall bladder, a pear-shaped organ positioned under the liver; they vary in shape and size (from something comparable to a grain of salt to a ping pong ball), depending on the specific compounds from bile that harden to form them.
According to estimates, about 2 billion people in the world have Hepatitis B virus (shown above), or HBV. Those who have contracted the virus, through contact with a carrier’s blood or other bodily fluids, can develop the liver disease, Hepatitis B. When chronic, Hepatitis B is known to cause cirrhosis and liver cancer.
When a person develops cirrhosis, typically from drinking alcohol in excess or a Hepatitis B or C infection, his or her liver tissue (shown above, in pink) is choked by fibrous tissue (in blue). The liver, which has a remarkable ability to regenerate when damaged, tries to produce more cells, but the restricting web of fibrous tissues ultimately causes the organ to shrink.
Emphysema (shown above, in a smoker’s lung) is the unfortunate side effect of another unhealthy habit, smoking. With the disease, what happens is that big gaps (seen as white spots in the image) develop in the lung tissue, which disrupt the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide and result in labored breathing. The black coloration on this sample is actual carbon that has built up from this person smoking packs and packs of cigarettes over a stretch of many years.
April 19, 2013
“The scientist does not study nature because it is useful; he studies it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful. If nature were not beautiful, it would not be worth knowing, and if nature were not worth knowing, life would not be worth living.”
—Jules Henri Poincare, a French mathematician (1854-1912)
Earlier this month, the University of Wisconsin-Madison announced the winners of its 2013 Cool Science Image contest. From an MRI of a monkey’s brain to the larva of a tropical caterpillar, a micrograph of the nerves in a zebrafish’s tail to another of the hairs on a leaf, this year’s crop is impressive—and one that certainly supports what Collage of Arts and Sciences believes at its very core. That is, that the boundary between art and science is often imperceptible.
The Why Files, a weekly science news publication put out by the university, organizes the contest; it started three years ago as an offshoot of the Why Files’ popular “Cool Science Image” column. The competition rallies faculty, graduate and undergraduate students to submit the beautiful scientific imagery produced in their research.
“The motivation was to provide a venue and greater exposure for some of the artful scientific imagery we encounter,” says Terry Devitt, the coordinator of the contest. “We see a lot of pictures that don’t get much traction beyond their scientific context and thought that was a shame, as the pictures are both beautiful and serve as an effective way to communicate science.”
Most of the time, these images are studied in a clinical context, Devitt explains. But, increasingly, museums, universities and photography contests are sharing them with the public. “There is an ongoing revolution in science imaging and there is the potential to see things that could never before be seen, let alone imaged in great detail,” says Devitt. “It is important that people have access to these pictures to learn more about science.”
This year, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s scientific community entered 104 photographs, micrographs, illustrations and videos to the Cool Science Image contest—a number that trumps last year’s participation by about 25 percent. The submissions are judged, quite fittingly, by a cross-disciplinary panel of eight scientists and artists. The ten winners receive small prizes (a $100 gift certificate to participating businesses in downtown Madison) and large format prints of their images.
“When I see an image I love, I know the second I see it. I know it because it is beautiful,” says Ahna Skop, a judge and geneticist at the university. She admits she has a bias for images capturing nematode embryos and mitosis, her areas of expertise, but like many people, she also gravitates to images that remind her of something familiar. The scanning electron micrograph, shown at the top of this post, for example, depicts nanoflowers of zinc oxide. As the name “nanoflower” suggests, these chemical compounds form petals and flowers. Audrey Forticaux, a chemistry graduate student at UW-Madison, added artificial color to this black and white micrograph to highlight the rose-like shapes.
Steve Ackerman, an atmospheric scientist at the university and a fellow judge, describes his approach: “I try to note my first response to the work—am I shocked, awed, baffled or annoyed?” He is bothered when he sees meteorological radar images that use the colors red and green to depict data, since they can be difficult for color blind people to read. “I jot down those first impressions and then try to figure out why I reacted that way,” he says.
After considering artistic qualities, and the gut reactions they trigger, the panel considers the technical elements of the entries, along with the science they convey. Skop looks for a certain crispness and clarity in winning images. The science at play within the frame also has to be unique, she says. If it is something that she has seen before, the image probably won’t pass muster.
Skop hails from a family of artists. “My father was a sculptor and my mother a ceramicist and art teacher. All of my brothers and sisters are artists, yet I ended up a scientist,” she says. “I always tell people that genetically I’m an artist. But, there is no difference between the two.”
If anything, Skop adds, the winning entries in the Cool Science Image contest show that “nature is our art museum.”
April 5, 2013
For all 94 days of 2013 thus far, Klari Reis has kept to her resolution. The San Francisco-based artist has posted a new petri dish painting—eye candy for any sci-art lover—to her blog, The Daily Dish.
Reis’ circular art pieces are explosions of color. The yellows, pinks, purples, greens, oranges, reds and blues in the paintings take on a smattering of different shapes, including amorphous blobs, radiating fireworks and wavy veins that resemble, quite intentionally on Reis’ part, what a scientist might see when gazing through a microscope. The artist gives her creations playful names, little quips, really, that spring to mind when she looks at the designs. Blueberry Pie. That One Time in the 80′s. Peachy Keen. Jellyfish with a Brooch. Absinthe on the Rocks.
Just yesterday, she introduced Taylor Swift—a flower-like pattern in lemon yellow. (Check it out, above.)
The project, though begun in earnest this year, has been a long time coming. Reis, now in her mid-30s, was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease more than a decade ago. Shortly after her diagnosis, she left a stressful job as an architect in San Francisco to pursue a career in fine art. While studying at City and Guilds of London Art School, she was in and out of the hospital, trying to wrap her head around the differences between medications she was being prescribed in the United Kingdom and those she had been given in the United States. “I knew I was allergic to this one medicine in the U.S., but they called it something different in the U.K.,” says Reis. “So, I just felt like it was pretty important for me to understand what these drugs really were and what they did on the inside.”
In 2002, Reis’ doctor at St. Thomas’ Hospital, a teaching hospital connected to King’s College, invited her to his lab. There, under a microscope, he showed her dozens of samples of her blood reacting to different medicines. Intrigued with the cellular reactions she saw, particularly how cells morph and duplicate when different influences enter the body, Reis began painting some of the imagery on canvas and wood and aluminum panels, by memory. “My first 100 paintings were all named after different drugs,” she says. “They weren’t exact replicas of what I saw under the microscope, but were very much inspired by it.”
After three years in London, Reis returned to San Francisco, where she continued to work at the intersection of art and science. Several biotech companies in the Bay area granted her access to their labs and commissioned educational paintings from her, depicting pharmaceuticals in action. But, then about four years ago, in what she describes as a very natural progression, Reis branched away from this work, and away from canvas, wood and aluminum, to create paintings within actual petri dishes.
“What I like about what I do is that it is different,” says Reis. “I use unconventional materials.”
Reis starts with a petri dish, one of three sizes of dishes she purchases from a biotech supply company. The smallest dishes are about three inches in diameter. The medium-sized dishes, standard in high school science labs, measure 4.5 inches, and the largest ones are about six inches across. Then, wearing a mask and a biohazard suit, she heats up epoxy polymer—a shiny plastic medium found not at an art store but at a place like Home Depot because it is often mixed with cement to create flooring (she was first exposed to the product during her days as an architect)—and adds color to it using powders and industrial dyes. Once the plastic is a syrupy consistency, she applies between three and five layers within a petri dish. Reis has become looser and more abstract in her designs, but they still call to mind cultures of bacteria growing in petri dishes.
Just when you think Reis may have exhausted her options, she unveils a delightful new design. Each petri dish is remarkably different. ”I feel like there are endless possibilities,” says Reis.
“What does the next one look like?” I ask, hoping for an inside scoop on the next dish to hit her blog.
“Ah,” Reis says, “You’ll have to wait and see.”