thorax cross-section
Thorax by Lisa Nilsson

The human body has been inspiring art since at least the Venus of Willendorf. Greek reliefs, Rennaissance paintings, Mayan carvings, and Indian sculptures all celebrate the form. Traditionally, however, artists focus rather narrowly on the body’s outside.

It may take an unusual muse to be deeply inspired by the body’s insides. Artist Lisa Nilsson possesses just such a muse–as well as the skill to create breathtakingly beautiful, anatomically accurate cross-sections of the human body with quilled paper.

“I like to emphasize the reverential and the precious,” she writes of her Tissue Series, “to have a look inside is such a privilege.”

Profile detail
Profile (detail) by Lisa Nilsson

Quilling consists of rolling long thin strips of paper into coils, then folding and arranging the coils into shapes and patterns. Nilsson tends to select paper colors to match her subjects–red for muscle, white for nerves–and she has a particular penchant for using the gilt edges of old books to make bones.

Despite the fanciful intricacy of the technique, Nilsson strives for realism. Her female and male torsos are scaled down somewhat, but the other works are life-size, and displayed in correct alignment. Transverse (horizontal) sections are laid flat on shelves, while saggital and coronal (vertical) sections stand tall.

After observing many visitors to her exhibits, Nilsson has concluded, “Viewing the body in slice-of-deli-meat fashion could be a bit unsettling for people who are unaccustomed to it.”

Unsettling perhaps, but undeniably educational. As she describes in her TEDMED talk, most viewers begin their study of the pieces up close, peering at the craftsmanship of the quilled paper. Only then do they step back and consider the work in its bodily context. They learn, perhaps, that they’re looking at the chest. Nilsson gives lyrical voice to the understanding that dawns: “Ah, that must be the heart; I can see the way it’s so beautifully surrounded by the lungs, and how that lovely encircling cage of the ribs protects and holds everything in.”

Female torso
Female torso by Lisa Nilsson

Nilsson’s creations soften the gross or creepy reaction that human guts can sometimes engender. By admiring the Tissue Series as works of art first and as representations of their own viscera second, squeamish patrons are given the gentlest introduction to anatomical science.

But those intimately familiar with her subject matter also find much to appreciate in Nilsson’s artwork. She has been contacted by surgeons and dissectors, medical technicians and patients. Researcher Adam Lawson of the Visible Human Project wrote to Nilsson to share his own experience–as meticulous and painstaking as the quilling process–in identifying tissues and organs in millimeter-by-millimeter sections of a cadaver. Nilsson has used this work as reference material; the Visible Human Project has also served educational purposes from medical school to sixth-grade classrooms.

There’s great potential here for integrating art and science in school curricula. I cannot tell you how much sixth-grade me would have loved learning to quill, then using this technique to re-create real anatomy.

H/t to Science Made Cool

The Reverential and the Precious: Human Anatomy as Art 4 September,2012Danna Staaf


Danna Staaf

Danna Staaf is a marine biologist, science writer, novelist, artist, and educator. She holds a PhD in Squid Babies from Stanford and a BA in Biology from the College of Creative Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She helped found the outreach program Squids4Kids, illustrated The Game of Science, and blogs at Science 2.0. She lives in San Jose with her husband, daughter, and cats.

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