The Art of Medicine – Laura Maaske, Medical Illustrator

Written by on September 28, 2012 in Art - No comments

Last month, I formally introduced Laura Maaske who we are fortunate to have as a monthly contributor to Med Monthly beginning next month.  This month, we are going to get more in depth into her past, her art and her passion of medical illustration.

I began by asking Laura about her inspiration and background. She fondly reminisced of the time as a child she spent learning about her Mother’s graphic design business. She loved art and drew every day. Obviously, the seeds of creativity and art were planted early.  But she also loved science and read about the scientific method.  Little did she know or understand at the time, that her love of detailed drawing and science would one day merge and lead her to her fascinating career.

Laura did her undergraduate work at the University of Wisconsin where she chose zoology but she remembers feeling very unsure of her future.  By chance in her senior year, Laura visited the University of Toronto’s St. George campus.  Hanging in the Medical Sciences building, she saw framed along the corridors the gorgeous works of the medical illustration students.  She was instantly engaged and suddenly realized that this was what she wanted to do. Finishing her undergraduate work, she then began to build a portfolio, taking courses at the Toronto School of Art, in preparation for her application to the University of Toronto Division of Biomedical Communications. In the fall term of 1994, she was accepted.  And so it began…the road to the dazzling world of integrating art and medicine; certainly not your typical artwork nor a graduate course study that you might expect for an artist.

Her challenging graduate program required three years of coursework including gross anatomy, histology, embryology, physiology and neuroanatomy, to name a few.  This was between the years of 1993 and 1997, when there was only a tentative certainty that the computer would be a dominant force for creating and designing art. Consequently and fortunately for her, students at that time were being trained in the digital methods as well as the traditional arts.

The traditional arts meant she would learn to express her creativity — wash, carbon dust, pen & ink and watercolor all became part of her repertoire. But her experience thus far had only begun to open the doors to learning.

Laura did her masters research on interactivity in computer design and experimenting with the small world being offered by a computer interface.  I asked Laura to further explain, “It was like science itself, in a nutshell. I wanted to be creating small worlds where you were able to learn how things worked.”

In completing her initial research she was on her way to her profession.  She collaborated with a Toronto otolaryngologist, Jonathan Irish at Princess Margaret Hospital, to develop an exploration tool for his vocal cord palsy patients. This tool allowed his patients to use the cursor to drag a three-dimensional rendering of their vocal cords into different positions, mimicking the surgery itself, in order to see how their voices would be modified during the surgical procedure. What made their involvement particularly important was that these patients were conscious during the surgical intervention. The doctor would be making modifications to the patient while they were conscious, and then asking them to speak and to approve the adjustments he was making to their voices.

If you review Laura’s website, you’ll notice she states that all of her work is done by hand.  Once again, having been trained in traditional art, she always begins with a hand-sketch.  “Bringing the work (sketch) to the computer is a useful step in the process, but I do this only when I feel I have captured the essential movements and curves on paper that are to be the underlying focus in the final piece.” Every project that Laura creates is custom done.  In the inception of each one she questions, “What does this individual piece have to say to its audience?” Only then can she truly begin to develop the perfect concept for her final piece.

What is the most difficult question to ask such a complex artist?  What project are you the most proud of and why?  After much thought, Laura replied, “As an artist, I am in search of a balance between the chaos and rich excess of information being offered in the surgical scene and simple educational objectives about that particular procedure. There is a particular series of surgical illustrations which gave me insight about this balance. It had been a goal of mine to render the surgical scene in a way as if the surgeon were operating in a clean field.  It was my job to clear away what a photograph could not.  But it occurred to me as I was beginning to draw the series that perhaps I was avoiding something beautiful about the nature of surgery, to avoid the dissolution. During a surgical procedure, the tissues become a little swollen, and there is some bleeding, and this is all understood as a way of adapting the body for a healthier state of being when the surgical procedure is done. But it seems like a contradiction: destruction first before healing. We open the body, aware of this small loss, in favor of a greater gain. So I decided to render this dissolution in my surgical series. The results worked in a way that seemed very natural to me, compared to what my cleaner renderings had been as in previous work.  This lesson made this project very special.”

Laura takes pen to paper to begin her imagery design that expresses the human body and its inner workings in explicit works of vivid color and science.  We are grateful for her visionary expression of the world within and look forward to her sharing more of her work every month with her articles.

Following is a list of some of Laura’s published work:

Feature Article. Maaske, L. 1999. “A Study of Interactivity in Educational Patient Hypermedia”. Journal of Biocommunication. V(3); 2-11.

Feature Illustration. Papsin, B., Maaske, L., McGrail, S., 1996 “Repair of orbicularis oris rupture”. Laryngoscope. V(6);757-60.

Cover Illustration. Chan, A., Ross, J., 1996. “The management of unstable coronary syndrome in patients with previous coronary artery bypass grafts”. University of Toronto Medical Journal. 73(3);132-8.

Feature Illustration. Chung, H.T., Gordon, Y.K. Ng, and George, S.R.,1996. “Biochemical characteristics D2 receptor monomers and dimers expressed in Sf9 cells”. University of Toronto Medical Journal. 73(2);86-93.

Feature Illustration. Wiebe, P.K., Zochodone, D.W., Bell, R., Wallace, C., 1996. Brownell, A.K. “Myasthenia gravis and multiple sclerosis: two neurologic disorders, one patient”. University of Toronto Medical Journal. 73(2);94-7.

To know more or contact Laura, go to

By Monica Menezes Irwin

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