I don’t know what prompted me to take this picture. In retrospect, I imagine this is what death looks like, or feels like. On death’s door, the vast promise of something more (perhaps heaven) lies ahead–pure and natural, mysterious in its perfection. But there are things that hold us back, stopping us like a red light. Eventually, something’s got to give.
Short for infertility, a disease resulting in the abnormal functioning of the male or female reproductive system. There are many causes, some known and many unknown. It is often merely a matter of chance, a condition that arises with little explanation.
I have to confess that I had not thought all that much about infertility as an illness until I encountered ART of Infertility, a “an infertility artwork, oral history and portraiture project.” This art exhibit is a compilation of infertility stories expressed through various artistic media, by a diverse range of women who have experienced or are experiencing infertility.
I’ve been struggling to write about this exhibit for months now, but nothing I say seems to do it justice. I guess I just want to say that this exhibit moved me in inexplicable ways. The stories that these women share, the art that they use to express their own inexplicable emotions were incredibly powerful. Their words, their symbols, the hues and textures and things were all used to convey the spectrum of ways that infertility touched each of their lives and their selves.
The ART of Infertility prompted me to realize just how many potential triggers exist in our society for those who are infertile. As a society, we make so many assumptions about how those who are married will have children (or, side note, even those who are not married, for family planning comes up in many professional development discussions with women in medicine it seems). It reminded me of how intimately femininity is often intertwined with the ability to bear children. While this is not always the case, it’s one thing to make the decision not to have children; it’s another thing all together to not have the ability to make that choice.
For those with infertility, the constant reminders of one’s infertility may seem ever-present. Menstruation may be a monthly reminder, a taunt about the body’s reproductive shortcomings. Those struggling with infertility may be surrounded by constant reminders as their peers procreate without problem. There are so many challenges to one’s self that can be inflicted by infertility, challenges that are best told by those who experience it themselves.
I guess infertility is another illness that urges me to wonder how we as a society, as strangers, friends, and family to those invisibly suffering, can cultivate a more sensitive environment. Can we open our minds to the variety of ways that people choose to live their lives and the many aspects that may lie outside of their control? Is it possible for us to cultivate a culture of sensitivity that reconciles the course of majorities with the various paths taken by everyone else? How do we escape the limitations of assumptions and make space for human diversity?
As I examined histological slides, I was struck by the simple beauty of the human body on a microscopic level. These images—still silhouettes of chondrocytes in the hyaline cartilage of joints, scattered pyramidal cells in the cerebral cortex of the brain, pebble-like adipocytes of fat—were each works of art. And, I realized, they all exist within me.
Khalil Harbie’s The Art of Anatomy
In The Art of Anatomy (shown here), Khalil Harbie also turns his gaze inward to realize the art of the human body on a macroscopic level. He seems fascinated in the musculature of the forearm— the bulk of the brachioradialis, the careful curvature of the flexor carpi radialis, even a hint of the flexor digitorum superficialis. His intricate shading brings to life the texture and dimensionality of the forearm within a planar space, illustrating the very structures that enable this sketch.
Introspection enables a new way of seeing oneself that permeates into how one views and interacts with the external world. Only with introspection, I posit, can we begin to connect with those around us and truly achieve empathy. The core skills of doctoring, of listening and adequately responding to the suffering of other human beings, depend on an understanding of the self.
The human body, and human life as whole, is aesthetic by nature. We are colorful, we are shapely, we are beautiful. Art is at the heart of scientific studies like histology and anatomy because, in essence, art is the heart of humanity.
The heart has long been appreciated as a vital organ in the body, one whose persistent beating sustains human life. During the Middle Ages, the heart fell under the scrutiny of a variety of philosophers. Some, like Aristotle, reasoned that the heart, not the brain, was the important organ of the body that dictates human reasoning and rationality. Others believed the heart held different responsibilities as the seat of the soul, a place of emotion and passion.
The heart as a representation of love has survived especially through the heart shape, a symbol that has been prominent since the end of the Middle Ages. The simple heart shape has become a metaphor for affection, for lust, for devotion. As the image primarily associated with Valentine’s Day, it remains powerfully resonant of love.
In Othello, Shakespeare alludes to the importance of expressing such emotion with the phrase “I will wear my heart upon my sleeve.” The phrase once referred to the jousting tradition where knights wore colors that matched their respective ladies. Now, this idiom alludes to displaying emotions openly and fearlessly.
This collage, motivated by the recurring appearance of the heart shape in non-cardiac tissue, demonstrates how the heart shape we so commonly associate with love can in fact exist outside the organ of the heart. Taken from kidney, mammary gland, liver, and prostate gland tissue, these samples demonstrate how the heart shape lives on structurally in other bodily organs. These hearts are constructed with different kinds of epithelial tissue from simple cuboidal epithelium to simple squamous epithelium; different cells come to naturally construct the heart shape. The array of colors arose from the different dyes used to illustrate the tissue structures. The basic dye hematoxylin binds to basophilic components like nucleic acids and ribosomes, while the acidic dye eosin binds to acidic components like protein. Although the heart shape is embodied differently in these various organs, it maintains the basic structure of two symmetrical halves that coalescence to create a whole.
Passion and love are not isolated within the cardiac tissue of the heart. Instead, these emotions circulate throughout the entire body. We must embrace these naturally permeating feelings, and so, “I will wear my heart upon my sleeve.”
Yesterday was International Day of Persons with Disability. In Zurich, the disability organization Pro Infirmis celebrated with mannequins sculpted after people with disability. “Because who is perfect?”
A simple, compelling work of art. This film and the project it reenacts both encourage us to remember disability. To pause. To reconsider societal ideas about the normal and abnormal body. To respect the vast array of differences that make us human.
What most fascinated me were the responses of passersby. Most halted in their tracks and did a double take. Some seemed confused and uncertain about whether what they were seeing was real. Perhaps these reactions exemplify how much farther we have to go in raising awareness and appreciation for disability.
Integrating disability into how we represent and mold our bodies is one more step forward.
What began as a birthday gift for a nephew has quickly become a gift for all the superhero children around the world. It started with Superhero Brenna, whose diagnosis with a rare skin disorder gave her the superpower of endurance, of “redefin[ing] beautiful” and blessing those around her. Kids like Brenna who face serious disabilities or illnesses display superhero qualities every day. The boldness to be, the bravery to endure. These are kids who deserve to be appreciated, whose effort and persistence amidst hard times should not go unrecognized.
Tiny Superheroes gives children capes to empower them through their journeys with disability or illness. These capes are handmade in vibrant colors with letters personalized for each child. They materialize our appreciation for these children, these tiny superheroes all around us. This organization honors these children not merely through material capes but also by showcasing their journeys through blog posts “in hopes of giving them a voice, their illness or disability a face, and the world the opportunity to stretch.”
Godzilla stands next to a purple hospital, breathing out engulfing flames of fire. He is burning out cancer.
This drawing was one of many to inspire art therapist Lisa Murray to share the work of children with cancer. Photographer Billy Howard is also dedicated to these children, capturing their personalities through a camera lens. Together, Murray and Howard set out to bridge their representations of these children. Murray let children illustrate what it feels like to have cancer through the medium of their choice, then wrote out their explanations. Howard photographed each child individually, honoring their personal journeys with cancer.
Godzilla vs. Cancer was an art gallery exhibition in 1994, sharing the illustrations, explanations, and photographs of 25 children with a larger audience outside the Pediatric Oncology ward. Eight years later in 2002, 17 of the children had survived. These creations along with biographies and a list of resources were compiled to create the book Angels & Monsters: A child’s eye view of cancer.
Cancer brings out fear: tears, pain, sickness, confusion, isolation, and band-aids. But it also brings out friendships, faith, perspective, and love. While each artistic piece offers insight into each child’s perspective, black and white photographs showcase each child’s self. On a swing, with a superhero cape, by a window, curled in a bed. Each work of art and the rationale behind it is compelling, each photograph and each child beautiful.
The authors reflect honestly with simple yet profound understandings of these children and their journeys. I loved the phrase that Jeff Foxworthy uses in the forward to describe these children: “old souls in little bodies” (viii). These individuals exhibit the precision of language as they carve out childhood cancer. They invite us to into “a special world. No artifice exists there. The human spirit holds sway with complete honesty and great dignity” (6).
Bioartography is a joint venture by scientists and artists across the University of Michigan campus. This program identifies the artistic nature of scientific studies and illuminates them through a microscopic lens. A panel of artists and scientists contribute their perspectives, and the profits of these sales fund scientific research. Some of these creations have even been adapted and pieced together as quilts by the Healing Quilts in Medicine program. By far, an art fair favorite.
Inspired by Bioartography, I created this collage.
I <3 Histology
<kidney, mammary glands, liver, prostate>
A collection of tissue slides in the shape of a heart, although ironically not of the heart.
Disease exists in three-dimensional space. Sculptures allow our depictions of pathology to inhabit the world as such. With metal and broken shards of glass, Jessica Beels brings disease to life. From the microscopic HPV virus to blood clots and galaxies of neurons, Beels crafts the symbolic works of art with an understanding of their scientific significance.
These works were designed specifically for an exhibit called Pulse: Art and Medicine, “a multi media investigation of medicine as an inspiration for art, and the inherent artistry involved in the medical sciences.”
What I love about Beels’ creations is that they embody all aspects of this mission. The multiplicity of medium, incorporating ordinary tools of art alongside the extraordinary. Understanding how medicine, the springy resilience of blood cells or the withering effects of Alzheimer’s on neurons, are influence these creations. And, at the same time, how this art reflects the natural and unnatural of the human body.
It is the thought and care behind these works that empowers them. Beels outlines the flow of her ideas, inviting the viewer to understand the decisions she made in shaping each creation. She clearly respected this feat of stepping into the world of science and drawing upon art to explore. Beels seems to devote herself to each of these works, allowing each component to bring its scientific merit into art.