Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Convergence of Art and Science: Amazing Anatomy objects

Throughout history, anatomical studies have played a large part in the search for knowledge about the body's internal mechanisms and life giving forces. These studies have led to many advancements of thought but many are incredible art objects as well.

The Italian painter, Leonardo da Vinci (
1452- 1519), was one of the great innovators in this search to understand the physical working of man.  No easy task, considering dissecting corpses for study was outlawed by the Roman Catholic Church during his lifetime. He did this by covertly observing cadavers for his anatomical drawings. Upon his death in 1519 he had accumulated about 600 drawings with notes. However, due to the illegal nature of his undertaking, they were never published in his lifetime. The power of these sketches still reach us today because of their beauty. He give us a glimpse of what lies just underneath the skin-- a microcosm of blood vessels, organs and bones .

One of Leonardo’s more well-known anatomical drawings-- Dissection of the Principal Organs of a Woman, c.1510, pen, ink and wash over black chalk, 18.5 x 13in. Here he depicts the "irrigation" system of the human body. Source: Windsor Castle, Royal Library 12281r, c 1991 Her Majesty the Queen, Royal Collection Trust

As the end of the 17th century neared, the reigns of the church were loosened and an anatomy school in Bologna was able to access the corpses that were needed to make detailed studies. From this school, Gaetano Zumbo was the first to make anatomical models from colored wax giving the models life like details. Soon an entire ceroplastic workshop formed around his methods.

 Today in Florence, a collection of these anatomical wax figures still exists in good condition. They are on display at the oldest public scientific museum-- La Specola (The Observatory, 1775). Here, the wax models were created in order to teach anatomy without having to dissect or observe a cadaver. The detail of and accuracy of the wax figurines is astounding. In a time with little refrigeration, approximately 200 corpses or parts of corpses were used to make a single wax figurine. Most of the masterworks at La Specola were made by Gaetano Zumbo (1656-1701) and Clemente Susini (1796-1814). The Italian modelers of the 18th century mastered subtle gesture and placement, keeping a little life in their figures. A feeling that creates a sensation as if they have just exhaled their last breath.

This wax model of a pregnant woman can be taken apart revealing internal organs and systems.  Source: Encyclopaedia Anatomica, pg2,  c1999 Benedikt Tachen Verlag GmbH, photos by Saulo Bambi

Source: Encyclopaedia Anatomica, pg108-115,  c1999 Benedikt Tachen Verlag GmbH, photos by Saulo Bambi
This model shows the superficial veins and lymphatic vessels.

Here in L.A. county, I recently went to the Huntington Library’s exhibition Beautiful Science: Ideas that Changed the World and was reminded of the wax collection in Italy. This exhibition in Dibner Hall consists of 4 sections, one representing Medicine. Here, one can see a book, Obstetric Tables (Philadelphia, 1847) by George Spratt. This book was intended to serve as a reference for the study and practice of midwifery. Much like the Italian wax models, new layers of anatomical structure can be revealed, in this case, by lifting flaps.

Likewise, a similar book by Andreas Vesalius, the Epitome (Swizerland, 1543) is on view. Within this book, illustrations by Jan Stephan van Calcar accompany Vesalius’s anatomical treatise, De humani corporis fabrica, making it an excellent teaching tool for students at a time when access to cadavers was rare. The Huntington Library has created a plastic duplication next to these two books so one can page thru the layers just like the medical students did back in the day.

View of book Obstetric Tables (Philadelphia, 1847) by George Spratt with interactive replica.
Detail of hand-colored lithograph. Illustration depicts twin fetuses. George Spratt, Obstetric Tables (Philadelphia, 1847).

Andreas Vesalius, the Epitome (Swizerland, 1543), illustrations by Jan Stephan van Calcar

 These works tell a story of what lies unseen beneath the surface.  Which somehow is a weirdly beautiful and  a macabre reminder of our own mortality.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Experimenting with cyanotypes

Anna Atkins, Chordaria flagelliformis (NY Public Library)

Scientific illustration in its early days was hand drawn and painted.  Today photography and digital imaging have greatly changed this field. So where did this revolution begin?  This photographic investigation was kick started by one of the first women photographers, Anna Atkins in 1843.  Her work British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions recorded specimens of algae in the British Isles, capturing a beautiful ephemerality in the process.  Her editions are great examples of the synthesis of art and science.
Anna Atkins, Delesseria sanguinea (NY Public Library)

Luckily for us, we can all easily make cyanotypes in our backyards.  Yeah!  Here is a link to B & H Photo where one can buy pre-coated paper or a basic kit to coat your own papers for around $20.  For the truly adventurous who want to make everything from scratch, here is an insanely informative site by Mike Ware on alternative photographic processes. One can purchase bulk chemicals for these scratch recipes from Photographers Formulary or a chemical supplier.

I made my own little creatures using the cyanotype process. They are a combination of Katydid wings and bird skeletons....       
Bidid Hybrid I, Cyanotype
Bidid Hybrid II, Cyanotype

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Nighttime spinning

I literally ran into this web last night made by a garden spider (one member of a large orb-weaver family.)  This particular spider generally spins a new web everyday, consuming the old web before starting a new one. When it starts this venture, the spider floats a silk line on the wind from its position until it reaches another surface on which to anchor it.  Young spiders have the ability to do the opposite.  They can fly into the wind off their anchor thread.
These little tid- bits seem epic--- The youthful spider taking a dramatic initial leap to create a beautifully ordered snare.  It becomes part of its own labyrinth, eating and digesting a history in order to make a future over and over again.

orb-weaver spider web

Friday, June 28, 2013

Certain Densities

Rachael Pease, Rapture, UV-direct imaging monoprint on frosted mylar, 19 x 14 inches
My artwork is on view at the George Caleb Bingham Gallery, University of Missouri from June 3 - August 19, 2013. The exhibition also features paintings by Matthew Ballou, Barry Gealt, David Gracie, Melanie Johnson, Ken Kewley, Rachael McHan, Emil Robinson, and Megan Shaffer. 

Visit Painters Table to view catalogue essay of Certain Densities by Matthew Ballou and to see more artworks.

The fig wasp's journey

Fig Wasps from my neighbors fig "fruit".

       I just finished reading Trees: Their Natural History by Peter Thomas. This book describes the lifespan of a tree, detailing what defines a tree from leaf to trunk, down to the roots below. Although a scientific book, Peter Thomas's descriptions become quite poetic when he takes time to reveal the small intricacies bound up in a tree's life. In his chapter, Towards the next generation: flowers, fruits and seeds he writes about the sheer brutality and complex beauty of the plant and pollinator in the fig wasp cycle.

       Here is my simplified explanation: When one cuts open a fig “fruit,” they will discover a bunch of stringy looking innards. These stringy forms are actually layers of different heights of flowers. Pollination of the fig happens when a female, bearing pollen from the fig in which she was born, squeezes thru a small hole that is accessible when the fig is in its infancy. This hole is so small that she typically loses her wings and antennae in her journey into the fig.

        Once inside, she moves about to lay her eggs in some of the flowers, while inadvertently pollinating other flowers. Her life ends here inside the fig. However her eggs hatch; the wee-ones feed and grow. The grub growth stimulates the tree not to drop the fig, allowing time for seeds to grow inside the fig along side the wasp.

         Wingless males eventually hatch, find a newborn female and mate. Having had the time of their life, they promptly chew a hole out of the fig and die. The winged females now have a tunnel for a smooth exit. Once out of the fig the females, loaded up on pollen from wandering around their birth fig, fly away to a new lovely smelling fig to lay their eggs. Hence the cycle continues and the figs ripen, are eaten and the seeds are spread. Yummy. Neither fig tree nor fig wasp could survive without each other. A relationship some believe has gone back in time some 60 million years. Geez. Sometimes it is really hard to break up.

        After discovering this tid-bit, I immediately went out in search for wasps. Luckily, a neighbor around the corner has a ginormous fig tree that overhangs their fortress of a fence onto the sidewalk bus stop. Many, many jumps later… I found a tall person to grab a few figs for me. Once cut open, this is what I found:

halved fig with wasps
P.S. Here is an informative site on the fig and its wasp: figweb

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Insect Debacle of 1995

Among the many high school science projects, the insect collection will always stand out in my mind.  During class we were given glass jars, fingernail polish remover, cotton balls, pins and a shoe box—mission to trap, gas, pin, and label.   Everyone proceeded with the project until we each had 20 insects neatly arranged and identified.  The following day, however, to everyone’s horror we each had 20 writhing and wriggling insects on pins.  Despite the fact that the class was totally traumatized, the teacher, Mr. Flanagan, laughed and insisted on grading the projects first, before letting us kill the insects in a humane way.  I suspect he had been huffing the fingernail polish. 

Later in life I read, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard.  In this journalistic, yet poetic book she contemplates life and nature while exploring her home range of Tinker Creek in Virginia.  Dillard describes a similar situation to my own insect debacle, "I used to kill insects with carbon tetrachloride—cleaning fluid vapor—and pin them in cigar boxes, labeled, in neat rows. That was man years ago: I quit when one day I opened a cigar box lid and saw a carrion beetle, staked down high between its wing covers, trying to crawl, swimming on its pin.  It was dancing with its own shadow, untouching, and had been for days.”  Think this sort of shadow is something many have experienced—wriggling on pins, mutilated.

These memories resurface from time to time when a grasshopper or butterfly crosses my path--An act where one is trying to create something fascinating or beautiful but discovering the brutality that underlies it. Other times it will be the botched or overdone face job so common out here in Los Angeles or tuning into the news and learning about the garment factory fires in Bangladesh.

I started making collection sketches recently.  These are of plucked katydid wings combined with arms.

Plucked wings, sketchbook experiments, 2013

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Me, Age 8, Champion of pig wrestling contest.
 This is how you wrangle a pig, wheelbarrow style.  I'm sure this info will come in handy to all of you one day.  Well what can I say, I grew up in Indiana, studied science, became an artist, moved to New York and now find myself in Los Angeles. The pig has changed and I'm still chasing after it. I'm starting this blog for a bit of fun but also to talk about a few things I feel passionate about-- art and nature. So welcome, enjoy.