A computer-enhanced drawing that shows how cells transmit signals across a synapse in the human brain not only serves a medical purpose, it also serves an artistic one in a first-time exhibit at the Mansion at Strathmore in North Bethesda.
Called “Pulse,” the exhibit, which features more than 40 images, sculptures and kinetic pieces displayed in eight rooms, explores how medicine inspires art and vice versa.
“This has never been done at Strathmore,” said curator Harriett Lesser, who developed the idea after seeing color photos of cancer cells.
“What struck me was how beautiful they looked in such a dangerous situation,” Lesser said. “I started to look at them, and I realized what a wonderful storehouse this was.”
The exhibit, which runs to April 13, features everything from a glass-blown virus and X-ray scans of toys to a 13-foot, wooden double helix and kinetic art created by sound waves.
“Vibrations in the tones form patterns in sand,” Lesser said.
On Saturday, Feb. 23, Strathmore will host a free talk and tour for children at 10:15 a.m. and another for adults at 1 p.m.
Also in the exhibit are 16 pieces contributed by the Department of Art as Applied to Medicine at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, which celebrated its 100th year in 2011 by issuing a catalog called, “A Century of Medical Illustration.”
Gary Lees, who heads the two-year program, said that medical illustrators have both the scientific knowledge and the artistic skills to illuminate conditions and processes that may be hard to see from direct observation, photos or modern imaging methods.
“Even MRIs and CT scans don’t get all the soft tissues,” Lees said.
In the exhibit is a pair of drawings by Max Brodel, an illustrator from Leipzig, Germany, who came to Baltimore in the late 1800s and founded the department at Hopkins. Created for a medical journal, they show a tumor at the base of a tongue caused by an imbedded fish bone.
“There are two images – one of the mouth open and [a cutaway] showing the nose to the back of the head showing the tumor next to the tonsil,” Lees said.
“You can’t cut a patient in half,” he said. “You can’t get a clear picture of half a head.”
Lees said medical illustrators also have the ability to present only what is relevant to clearly explain something. Photographs, for example, can have a lot of detail that only gets in the way.
Over the years, illustrators have gone beyond pen and ink to also make use of computer software in their work, using it to draw, enhance colors and also create 3D and animated illustrations for print and the Internet.
Because of the latest digital technologies, graduates are able to produce a range of multimedia materials for teaching, marketing and other purposes used by hospitals, universities, publishers and private companies.
But they are only tools, and the individual creative drive is still key.
“Some of the contemporary pieces don’t look really medical, they look like abstract art,” Lees said.
Also in the exhibit is work by artists inspired by medicine. Suspended from the ceiling are structures by Jessica Beels, who lives in Washington, D.C., and shares an artists’ studio in the Gateway Arts District in Prince George’s County.
Beels makes paper that she applies to the wires in wire structures that she builds. In one piece, “Daily Dose,” she evokes the Swiss-cheese nature of bones affected by osteoporosis.
In others, she evokes the sexually transmitted human papilloma virus [HPV] and blood clots.
Like Lesser, Beels is intrigued by the beauty of biological structures and the power of some to not only do good but also harm. A blood clot forms in the body to heal but lodged in the wrong place, it can also cause heart attacks, she said.
“It’s a mistake to pigeonhole where an idea [for art] can come from,” said Lesser.