Category Archives: Visualizing Illness

What can illness look like?

“Artful Medicine”: Surgery, Microscopes, and Plastination

Understanding medicine as an art is complex; it encompasses a number of facets. For one thing, the praxis itself is an art, but its roots also stem from a visual form of art.

1. Surgery

This is a great collaborative effort at Stanford to enhance surgical education through artistic representation. 

2. Microscopes

Which reminded me of one of my old favorite, Bioartography. This looks at disease through the lens of microscopic imaging.

Bioartography

3. Plastination

Which got me thinking about Body Worlds. The plastination of bodies are transformed to sculptures of art.

Art is deeply intertwined in our understanding of the human body, from a cellular level to a physiological level to an anatomical level and beyond. It’s interesting to consider these three perspectives on the art of medicine because they illuminate the fact that  this concept and this initiative is entirely natural.

But at the same time, exhibits like Body Worlds have raised ethical concerns about artistically displaying a body. Although plastination originated with educational intentions, the body has become commodified and manipulated. Is there somewhere we should draw the line between art and medicine?

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Life is Black and White and Grey

An incredibly beautiful, tragic, word-less journey. As told through greyscale photography.

The Battle We Didn’t Choose: My Wife’s Fight With Breast Cancer.

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I don’t even feel obligated to say anything about this. It speaks for itself.

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Healing Wounds in David Small’s Stitches

After attending the Tell Me A Story Symposium last week that highlighted the powerful place of illustrations in storytelling, I was able to take a step back and approach David Small’s graphic novel Stitches with a more open mind. In this memoir, Small takes the reader leaping from memory to memory. He introduces his nuclear family, which consists of an overbearing to the point of violent father, a stern but silent mother, and a drumming brother. From the story’s beginning at six years of age, there is something off about Small, and his father aims to rectify his son’s character. Small recalls spending time with his abusive grandmother and the traumatizing experiences he endured both physically and mentally. Flash forward: eleven years of age. Small’s growth is discovered, but the family responds in denial and neglect. His mother initially fears the doctor’s bills more than the growth itself, and the doctor’s reassurance that it is no cause for alarm allows it to fall lower and lower on the family’s priorities. Finally, Small has not one but two surgeries; while he entered the hospital with a additional growth on his neck, he emerges with a vacancy of vocal cords replaced by nothing but stitches. Confused, Small eventually discovers that his condition had a name: cancer. His parents had chosen to keep the identity of his illness confidential from him.

Although Small’s stitches may remain in tact, his wounds reside much deeper than the surface of the skin. His life begins to unravel until a therapist, the white rabbit, opens up a space for communication that provides him with relief and allows him to address the inherent tensions with his family. As Small improves mentally, these tensions begin to take their toll on the family as his grandmother is sent to an asylum and he encounters his mother engaging in a lesbian act.  His father pulls him aside, finally admitting that Small’s cancer was a result of his own father’s radiation experimentation in his childhood. At sixteen Small is out making a name for himself as an artist, when a call informs him that his mother is dying. He visits her on her death bed, powerfully resting his hand on hers as a sign of peace.

As the first illness narrative that I have encountered in the form of a graphic novel, I found the illustrations to be particularly gripping. Not only did they really bring to life Small’s tale, especially since he hints at his artistic aspirations in the story, but also because images hold a different kind of power than words. Small’s depiction of his voiceless life was intriguing. I was also fascinated by the intertextuality of the Alice in Wonderland story and the White Rabbit’s guest appearance as a therapist. By coupling powerful language with jarring imagery, Small achieves an evocative graphic novel memoir that moves readers beyond typical limits.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What did the genre of graphic novel bring to this illness narrative?
  2. How might the genre of graphic novel affect the audience of this tale? Under what circumstances might this be a more effective medium than other genres?
  3. What were some moments when images resonated and were more powerful than their linguistic counterparts may have been?

 

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The Art of Illness

What I find fascinating about the idea of using art to express the illness experience is that it translates the physical and mental components of illness into a visual image. While some illnesses are often visible, others remain invisible. Art has the power to visually illuminate the visible and unveil the invisible.

As I explored artistic depictions of illness, I found that art seemed to be used in three main ways: to encourage another person’s illness experience, to express one’s own illness experience, and to depict the illness experiences of others.

Fiber Arts and Loose Ends includes a series of quilts created as tributes to survivors, an uplifting collection for sufferers. While some are more abstract, including depictions of plants used in cancer treatment, others incorporate language into this artistic medium. Words of Love by Annabel Ebersole incorporated the words “Courage,” “Love,” “Faith,” “Belief in Miracles,” “Hope,” and “Trust.” These encouraging words reminded me of the triumph narrative, but they also embody an optimistic take on the quest narrative.

While art is sometimes turned to for relief and encouragement, it can also be used as a space for self-expression and release. William Utermohlen used art as a form of narrative, to tell the tale of his transformation with Alzheimer’s. His drawings reflect his gradual loss of self and identity through the distortion of his facial features. Incorporated colors seem sporadic (the fourth drawing in particular seems to reflect the chaos narrative), until ultimately Utermohlen has become a faceless black and white charcoal sketch.

In addition to providing support for the ill, art can be used to spread awareness to the well. The Scar Project is a particularly powerful photography collection of breast cancer survivors, especially depicting women who have had mastectomies and are redefining the female body. With the motto “Breast Cancer Is Not A Pink Ribbon,” these works are a direct resistance against the pink ribbon that has become the face of breast cancer (and is also a form of the triumph narrative). These works also revise the restitution narrative of breast cancer by suggesting that rather than a return to normalcy, breast cancer can result in a redefinition of the female body and female identity.

Just as Frank’s narrative categories often overlap and intertwine elements of illness, art seems to transform and evolve illness, achieving a multiplicity of narratives within a single work of art.

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