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Print Editions Thursday September 28th, 2023

Workshop spotlights biological drawings

‘Visual biology’ event featured medical and botanical illustrations from the 1500s and 1600s

A urine classification chart, a Renaissance-era classroom dissection and a pediatric skeleton walking upright along a grassy field were all images featured at the “Making Visual Biology” workshop held Thursday evening.

The event, which united art and biology, was co-hosted by the John Hay Library and the student group STEAM, which aims to combine art and science, technology, engineering and math fields. Held in the Digital Scholarship Lab at the Rockefeller Library, the workshop displayed centuries-old books depicting the medicine and botany of their times. Richard Noble, rare materials cataloguer at the Hay and one of the event’s organizers, launched the workshop by presenting selected pages from the texts.

Next, scientific illustrator and muralist Amy Bartlett Wright engaged the audience in a drawing exercise. Wright, a continuing education faculty member at the Rhode Island School of Design, reviewed the process of drawing natural art.

The process involves outlining with ink, adding and subtracting colors, layering colors over one another and using different shading techniques, Wright told workshop participants. At the end of her presentation, Wright taught the participants how to draw a seashell.

The primary purpose of the event was to give people an understanding of “why it’s important to know the science behind making drawings of anatomy,” said Gabe Filsinger ’14, co-vice president of STEAM.

Scientific illustrations must be precise, Filsinger said.

“If you’re drawing something that is real, and you want to use it to actually learn from, then you can’t fuzz around,” he said.

The event’s second purpose was to discuss how the old drawings and books were made, with special attention to making biological drawings “as accurate as possible,” Filsinger said. The event’s organizers invited Wright to present at the workshop because “an artist will teach people how to actually do it themselves,” he added.

The medical and botanical illustrations on display came from the 1500s and 1600s. When creating the images, the illustrator would collaborate very closely with the physician, said Michelle Site ’14, co-president of STEAM.

“The thing that’s illustrated (in these drawings) is the degree to which medicine as a discipline is always looking for ways to convey visual information,” Noble said.

In the days before photography, people could only interpret anatomy with the naked eye. After the drawing was created, copying and distrubuting the work posed additional challenges, Noble added.

Noble said the featured drawings possess a humanist dimension.  For example, a skinless corpse is depicted holding his skin in one hand while standing upright in a grassy field.

These drawings matter to biologists and physicians because they depict “the human historical side of their knowledge,” Noble said.

The images give context to current scientists and doctors, giving them insight into how their predecessors understood the human body, he said, adding that looking back on this imagery broadens current physicians’ perspectives.

“If one can understand the history, they more fiercely protect it, which is a good thing,” he said.

The event’s organizers hoped to bridge the fields of science and art through imagery accessible to both disciplines.

“Visualization is another tool that can be applied to anything,” Site said.

STEAM is “trying to make science more creative and interdisciplinary,” Filsinger said, adding that the student group is not just throwing art and science together.

Students can access the books and resources displayed at the event if they set up a viewing appointment with the Hay, said Ann Morgan Dodge, readers services librarian and an event organizer from the Hay.


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