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Cross/Sections: Anna Vlaminck

Anna Vlaminck. Lacrimal Gland Illustration. (Image courtesy of the artist)

Popular wisdom commonly places art and science at utter odds. Where one is rooted in logic and limited by the constraints of the “real world,” the other is intrinsically illogical and unconstrained by what is possible. A scientist’s mind must be disciplined to accept only what is before it, but an artist cannot function without wondering about the possibilities. The “renaissance man” is a thing of the past, supposedly—art and science have grown too far apart for individuals like da Vinci or Michelangelo to inhabit both worlds. In this series of articles, I seek to put the lie to this dichotomy by sitting down with individuals whose work bridges the gap between art and science.

Earlier this month, I spoke with Anna Vlaminck, a fine arts painter and sculptor firmly entrenched in medical illustration. Vlaminck is a graduate of the University of Michigan, a one-time Virology student who made the jump from the lab to the studio. Visitors to her website will find one section dedicated to fine art and another to medical illustrations, both demonstrating the artist’s attentive eye for detail. Literally breaking out of their frames, her distinctive variable depth paintings are at once microscopically detailed and holistically complete. Her talent for creation on multiple levels is an essential part of her technical work as well, though I couldn’t help but wonder how exactly one goes about diagramming a throat in mid-swallow. Surely the artist cannot be working from a bisected neck.

Anna Vlaminck. Swallowing Stages. (Image courtesy of the artist)


Which just goes to show what I know. When I asked her about the subject, she laughed, “Actually, you can.” As a student, she spent a substantial amount of time in the cadaver lab, sketching from plastinated models—that is, bodies with the fat and water replaced by certain plastics, leaving a permanent model that will not decay. These days, except for the occasional opportunity at Rush Hospital, she rarely gets the chance to draw the body’s inner workings from “life,” so she must rely on the work of medical illustrators who came before her. X-rays, CT scans, and cross-sections also help her complete the picture her client is requesting. One of the only mediums she won’t use, in fact, is simple photography.

“I’m asked about [why I don’t use photographs] all the time,” she says. “What people don’t realize is, you don’t know what to look for. It’s all just pink mush.” That’s one of the main reasons people need medical illustrators in the first place, so that a diagram emphasizes the right parts. “You know those overlays in medical illustrations? People think that it’s just like that, they don’t consider that those images are made by medical illustrators.”

Anna Vlaminck. Lymphatic System. (Image courtesy of the artist)

As a freshman double-majoring in Virology and Art, Vlaminck often crossed paths with scientific or medical illustrators even before she began to consider the job for herself. At first, she says, “I didn’t want anything to do with art, but it became more and more clear after I saw what it was to work in a lab that I didn’t want to do science or become a doctor either.” When the radiology department advertised a job for a scientific illustrator, she jumped at the chance, and stumbled into a career she describes as tremendously rewarding.

Differing from the art world, “criticism” in medical illustration is focused on accuracy and placement. “You’re never going to have a doctor say, ‘Did you think about the composition in this way?’ You’ll never have an art critique, he’ll just say, ‘Oh, that’s amazing! Let’s just move this muscle up,’ and that’s it.”

Medical illustration can be its own process of discovery. At the University of Michigan, Vlaminck said she was once tasked with a project on the female pelvic floor, so she found a pair of hip bones in the lab with the proper muscles attached. “I showed it to the doctor and he said, ‘That’s great, but you worked from a male pelvis.’ So I was like, ‘Well, I didn’t know that,’ and he said, ‘It’s perfectly fine, you just have to make it about a third wider.’ So I just had to stretch it. It was totally fine, but it’s really interesting to me that he was able to tell from what I drew that it was a male pelvis, when that’s something that wasn’t in my repertoire of knowledge at the time.”

And science isn’t always as cold and sterile as popular culture makes it out to be. One of her images in particular is striking in its humanity: a woman looks up at the viewer, a single tear rolling down her cheek. It’s almost easy to miss the lacrimal glands highlighted on the opposite side. “That was a special illustration for a guy making a textbook on pharmacology, and he found a photograph of these eyes that he thought were so pretty,” Vlaminck recalls. “It looks a bit artistic as well. Everybody thinks she’s crying. But the only reason she’s crying is because it’s showing a medication that goes into your eye for your sinuses, and if you put in one drop in it goes in like it’s supposed to, if you put in two, it runs down the side of your cheek.”

Anna Vlaminck. Pathos. Ink and gouache. 24″ x 48″. (image courtesy of the artist)

The variable depth paintings had their roots in her college experience as well. Instructed to make a project with one thousand of something, she bought a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, and after putting it together began the laborious process of elevating each tiny piece. “That was the initial idea, but then I realized it wouldn’t work. It took too much time, and it was too easy to break. So I had to come up with a different way to do it.”

Her second variable depth project did not have any problems with frailty. Simon is massive, a portrait that measures nearly ten by ten feet, painted on small steel squares. The model was a friend from Ireland, but at the time she made the painting, they’d already lost touch with each other. “So I have this giant painting of Simon in my living room, and he has no idea it exists.”

Her more recent iterations of the form are a bit more manageable, and her methodology continues to evolve. Where the novelty of three dimensions set her first variable depth paintings apart from other styles, her more recent works are refined to the point that the added dimension contributes to the sense of immersion. Jutting out emphatically on both sides, Pathos drops the viewer on a cliff overlooking a green meadow under gray skies, while Our Cove evokes a subtler sense of depth with very slight gradations. Perhaps most dramatic is “Winter Birds,” a scene familiar to any Chicagoan that conjures up the cacophony of a tree full of starlings. Like a scientist, Vlaminck must constantly experiment with her method of creating, if only to discover the limits of what is possible.

Anna Vlaminck. Winter Birds. Ink and gouache. 24″ x 24″. (image courtesy of the artist)


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