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Kansas City Art Institute Builds A Bridge Between Science And Art

Laura Spencer

For centuries, scientists have looked to artists to help visualize the complexities of the human body. The techniques have changed — from wood engravings and copper plate prints to microscopic photos and digital animation — but the focus on storytelling is the same. It’s a profession known as medical illustration and there’s an effort to cultivate more of it in Kansas City. 

Mixing art with science 

The illustration department at the Kansas City Art Institute is tucked into a former grocery store at 43rd and Oak. At two long tables near the entrance, a handful of students quietly surf the Internet or eat a snack just before the start of a biomedical visualization class.

Instructor Stanton Fernald darts back into a storage room filled with two skeletons and a table of microscopes. "I always enjoyed mixing the arts and the sciences together," he says. 

Fernald graduated from the Art Institute in 1994 with a focus on industrial design. For the last 15 years, he’s worked at the University of Kansas Medical Center as a medical illustrator. And he’s wanted to build a bridge between the two institutions.

"So you've got visual skills, you’ve got good conceptual skills, but the ability to take a detailed subject and kind of own it first, and then communicate it to another – that's kind of the key part of being a medical illustrator," he explains. "You’ve got to understand it before you can re-communicate it."

Artistic versions of anatomy

Medical or scientific illustration has been around for a while. Two-thousand years ago, Greek anatomists would present images – based on observation of dissections – to their students. But many consider Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci the first medical illustrator in the modern sense, combining artistic skill with scientific knowledge.

Credit Laura Spencer / KCUR
Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564)'s 'De Humani Corporis Fabrica' was published in 1543. It's in the collection of the Clendening and Linda Hall Libraries.

Rare book librarian Dawn McInnisgingerly turns the thick pages of a book dating from 1543. KU Medical Center's ClendeningHistory of Medicine Library has a wide collection, including 16th century anatomy books such as Vesalius’ On the fabric of the Human Body.

"This is the book that pretty much revolutionized anatomy," McInnis says. 

Vesalius, an anatomist and physician, was said to be able to identify any bone in the body in less than a minute. His book has nearly 300 illustrations – but not all ones you might expect. There’s a detailed skeleton lounging in a reflective pose, and top-down views of the brain of a mustachioed man.

"Basically, you notice his position is very humanistic," McInnis says. "This was the artistic version of anatomy books of the 1500s and 1600s. As you move into the 1700s, they're getting more of the pronation, supination type of portrayal. In the first ones, this is a human, a human without the skin." 

The rare books room at the Linda Hall Library at 51st and Cherry also has works dating from the 15th to the 19th centuries.

Credit Laura Spencer / KCUR
Rene Descartes' (1596-1650) 'De Homine,' 1662 at the Linda Hall Library.

"All the way through the history of illustration," says assistant library Cindy Rogers. "We start with the wood block print, and go to copper plate engraving, then into lithographs, and then we go a little bit into photography, but not much."

One of her favorites is a small book from 1662. Descartes, the French philosopher and mathematician, also dabbled in anatomy. 

"And it has very beautiful and surreal images of the brain," she says. "[It's] nice coming from the gentleman who said, 'I think, therefore I am.'" 

Past to present 

"From time to time, I pull references from historical illustration and traditional classical painting," says Dallas-based medical illustrator Dave Killpack. But these days, he says, his method of telling a scientific story is largely computer-generated. 

Killpack, chair of the board of governors of the Association of Medical Illustrators, says despite technological advances, there’s still a need for visual problem solving.

"So now we have MRIs and CT scans and lots of ways doctors can visualize what’s going on inside the human body," Killpack says. "At the same time, those aren’t typically very easy for anyone but the expert to understand."

According to Killpack, it’s a field with a lot of potential for growth – for those with a passion for both science and art.

Creating a teaching tool 

Back at the Art Institute’s biomedical visualization class, it’s crit night, a time for feedback. The students carefully pin their work on the walls. There’s microscopy, such as cross-sections of plants magnified through the lens of a microscope, and images of legs in motion.

Medical illustrator Nicole McClure Kurlbaum, with a background in biology and painting, is co-teaching: "I’d like you to say what muscle and what action you’re showing," she tells the students before the critique, "and I’d like you to talk about what you thought was most challenging, and what skills you think you can take into the rest of your portfolio pieces."

Credit Laura Spencer / KCUR
Illustration senior Christoper Martin pins up cross sections of a mushroom and a pine needle.

Senior Christopher Martin says he chose the elective because of the attention to accuracy and precision.

"One of most enjoyable challenges with this field is not only creating an image that’s appealing aesthetically, but also an image that can be used as a tool to teach," Martin says. "With my experience, what I like best about the field is that you’re providing a tool for others to understand."

These tools are starting to have a real-world application. Over the last two semesters, the students have worked on projects with Children’s Mercy Hospital, including creating visuals to break down cultural language barriers. Instructor Stanton Fernald says, as they look to the future of the program, the students are up to the challenge.

"The intent is to nurture what we’ve accomplished and find places we can make it grow," he says. "And that’s the plan right now."

As Kansas City develops a reputation as a biotech hub, with 200 life science companies in the region, Fernald says he hopes some of these students will be the ones helping to tell the stories. 

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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