Art Searching to the Heart

Written by on August 1, 2013 in Art - No comments
Laura Maaske is a gifted medical illustrator who has been a featured writer in Med Monthly for the past year, with several very informative articles on visual applications for medical practices, patients, and students. She has written articles on apps for women’s health, dental, medical education, and health care practices, to name a few. In this month’s issue she shares with us her personal journey and insights into the profession of medical illustration and her vision for the future, combining science and art.

When I tell people I am a medical illustrator, I might hear a response such as, “I didn’t know there was such a specialized profession,” or, “where do you find enough work for that?” For me, though, being in the middle of it, I rarely feel a sense of specialization or obscurity. There is a broad reach to the edges of science and of art. It’s a stretch and a wonderment at how I might possibly capture both, to think like an artist and to think like a scientist, in one reach. Continuing in my practice, this reach becomes broader with time, at both edges.

Science is beautiful, and Art is process

While I had always loved art, as a child, it occurred to me only as something for fun. The scientific method is a remarkable process, and I discovered its power in those early years. In a world where so many people had so many ideas, I had deep admiration for a process that might offer consistent and repeatable answers when nothing else could.

At the end of a great venture in careful methodical evaluation and observation, there might be a truth worth sharing with others, a truth worth claiming, “This is for us all.” “Objectivity” is the aim there, the hopeful claim, and it reaches everything we know, everything but the heart.

But as individuals, relating in our lives and relating to people, we rarely believe in this. We hold to our hearts. We, in fact, hold few truths to be self-evident. Particularly, when we are standing with art, we will say, “Truth is subjective.” But although this truth is not provable or repeatable, when we pursue it we find at the heart of it who we are. There is self-expression and the source of bring the self into the world. And this is often enough, truth enough.

In the early years before college, I knew biology, life science was what I would explore, in my future. I enjoyed it so much in college years that I had almost abandoned my love of art altogether.

But then a visit, as a college senior, to the University of Toronto, I discovered incredible work in the hallways by artists like Ian Suk, Stephen Gilbert, Eilla Hoppa Ross, and David Mazierski. Their art opened the door to a new world, where I could explore art and science at the same time. It hadn’t even occurred to me that I could have both. And I didn’t realize either what a great challenge it would be to hold both science and art in my everyday work. But I knew immediately that this is what I wanted to do. I enrolled in courses at the Toronto School of Art to build a portfolio, and I applied to the Biomedical Communications program at University of Toronto.

The love of science was making way to offer a mixture of both. I thought of it more narrowly then. I thought of an illustrator as someone who did work others needed. I did not think of an illustrator so much as an artist who is revealing their own heart in their work. If I had observed the work of other masters more closely, if I had seen more there, I would have understood that for them, scientific and medical illustration was revealing the deeper truths, just as any art is capable to do.

As a medical illustrator, I wrap myself around both these ends, ends of a string concerned with truth. I care as much about objective truths as subjective truths. I am pushing, in myself, to understand both ends.

Medical illustration students take their first year or two of coursework with the medical students. When I began to draw what we had seen in the microscope or in the dissecting room, I cared about reality. And yet, we knew as students we were performing something beyond reality. We learned to offer what the non-selective eye of the camera cannot offer. We cross lines to create focal points, we vignette to de-emphasize the outlying tissues or the background ephemera. We warm up the tones to bring objects forward.

But then we take another step, a step I didn’t want to accept when I was a student. We create a world of our own. When I was a student, I believed in the body as an ideal, even in the “reality” of a disease state. I painted it that way. I didn’t even realize I was painting a belief about the world.

In recent years, I have moved beyond my simple fascination with physical processes to a recognition of the beauty in the structure itself. What is the state of the body telling me and what should I reveal about that when I draw or paint it? If I am drawing a surgical scene, there is a process there. The surgeon is making a repair. But even as the repair is occurring, there is a deliberate break-down of tissues as vessels, nerves and connective tissues are severed. As a younger artist, I overlooked this. I drew the surgical scene in its more pristine ideal. More recently, though, it is important to me that the subtlety of this change should not be ignored in representing the events unfolding.

Science cares about the truth. But so does the artist. One searches outside, for something universal. The other searches inside, for something real to the heart.

As a master’s student, I explored interactivity in medical education and health promotion. Digital learning offers so much more now than it did then. I see the iPad as a revolutionary device. It’s more personal than the computer. It is responsive. It offers depth and a tactile experience which takes us beyond any book. With time it will become thinner and lighter and there will be more and more resources there at our fingertips, in our pockets and always at hands reach. Expectations from us as learners for deeply revealing visual information will be highly demanding. Medical students are already making this transition. And for me, as a medical illustrator, exploring this, it is the most exciting time of my life.

By Laura Maaske
Medical Illustrator!/Medimagery

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