Wanderings of an artist in the trenches.

Archive for November, 2012

What’s Left Behind (Blog Archive)

Since Apple has effectively killed Dot Mac my old ArtBlog is no more. However, there were many posts on the old blog that I think some of you may still enjoy. So I thought I would re-post a few of the old posts here in the new blog, appropriately labeling them Blog Archives in the title.

Originally posted:
Sunday, March 4, 2007

When I was studying at Pratt Institute back in the early 1980’s I had an anatomy class taught by a wonderful teacher by the name of Sal Montano. I also had Sal for drawing. These courses were six hours long and he really worked our asses off. You would crawl out of that class, totally wiped out, having truly done some serious work. Sal reminded me, visually, of the character Degas that Dustin Hoffman played in the movie Papillon. He was a great guy and very open-minded when it came to looking at various artist’s with whom he was not familiar. I wish I knew more about Sal and couldn’t find much about him on the web, but there was a mention of him by Ephraim Rubenstein who also studied under Sal in a much more intensive way than I ever had the pleasure of. Here’s his response:

Hi George,
    Good to hear from you. Yes, Sal was a fantastic teacher, and I learned a tremendous amount from him. He was, indeed, a very gentle, unassuming man, but a powerhouse of knowledge. What was so beautiful was that his anatomy was functional- he wanted you to know much more than origins and insertions, but actually what the muscles did. That was the key, I think. We did a lot of joint workshops with a physiologist named Al Somomine (sp?) from Rutgers in ‘the anatomy of movement’- that was great as well. We tried to analyze walking or even twisting- it was marvelous.
    Sal was also very concerned that you were able to express what you knew in your drawings. It was all very well and good, he thought, to know your anatomy, but did it translate into better, more informed, more beautiful drawings? He always talked about ‘graphic language’- he would analyze something like a Schiele drawing and show how all of his distortions were so informed.
    Sal used to keep his skeleton in the truck of his car, and I remember walking with him late at night through the streets around Pratt and being stopped, skeleton slung over Sal’s shoulder, by the cops. What a riot.

Sal was also the guy who, if I remember correctly, did the dissections for Columbia University. One of the great opportunities for me was to go with Sal to Columbia and work with the cadavers. It was a singular experience for me, as the study of anatomy in this way was something I’d read about and knew that the great artists had done, on pain of death had they been found out.

My one trip to the Columbia University lab (1982) made such an impression on me then, and has continued to exert an influence on me since. It was a humbling experience, to say the least. One cannot work among the cadavers and not be changed in some fundamental way.

There was quite a bit of trepidation among a lot of people to go to this. We were told to bring a sack lunch with us for later, and many were fearful that they might not be able to take what they were going to see and would toss their cookies or whatnot. We were all pretty nervous.

On arriving at the theater where this was to take place, Sal gave a lecture. He spoke about the fragility and power of life. The wonders of the human figure, the body, and that we should all remember that the individuals that we were going to study from that day were human beings: Fathers, sons, mothers, daughters and that now, more than ever, they deserved our respect. They had donated their bodies so that others could study the inner workings of the human machine. What a powerful enervating speech that was. He made you feel as though you really were part of the larger world and history of art.

What we were noticing more than anything was the smell of formaldehyde which permeated everything. We were all trepidatious about seeing a real dead body, something that you only read about in the newspapers, heard on the television news or saw in movies. But it was exciting, too. How many people really do get to see this beyond doctors? It was a rare opportunity, to be sure.

After the speech a gurney was rolled into the theater by a couple of lab technicians. They were dressed in white lab coats, as was Sal. On the gurney was a body covered by a white sheet. The sheet was pulled back and there was our first cadaver. It was the body of a large black man who had been dissected down to reveal his musculature. What we had seen in rare medical texts was there before our eyes. Revealed were the complex systems that we’d been trying to understand as seen rippling under flesh.

The lab technicians hoisted the body and basically put it into a pose. A model stepped into the theater, disrobed and assumed the same pose. Here was a side-by-side comparison of the muscles! Incredible! It was fascinating to see.

At this point we are just watching, taking it all in. Seeing those muscles move without skin. Unbelievable. After a while of this we were invited to come up and actually touch the muscles, to wedge a finger beneath a tendon and tug it gently to see a finger on the hand move. A miraculous machine. Hard to believe it works at all, so intricate.

Now we were enjoined to spend our time drawing, inspecting, exploring. At some point a buddy and I left the theater and wandered into another room. It was dark inside and in the feeble light we could see rows of gurneys with sheet-draped figures. It was quiet and antiseptic inside, still.

We flipped on the lights and moved from table to table pulling back the sheets. Under each was a different tale. Under one was only a torso, split up the center, the ribs splayed out. Under another was an old woman whose cranium was open, the skull cap lying like a bowl behind the head holding the scalp. The face had been cut down the middle along the forehead, down the nose and on through the lips and chin. One half of the flesh had been pulled aside to reveal the muscles beneath. Pretty jarring stuff, to be sure. But, just as with a live model, there is a certain detachment that presents itself, this is business. I had to remind myself, sometimes, that these were once live human beings.

We pulled out our pads of paper, our brushes, pencils and watercolors and began working. We went from gurney to gurney, each presenting a new visual problem to solve, a scene to capture. We were the only two in there and it was actually strangely peaceful. Every once in a while the reality of what we were doing would steal into us and chills would run up and down our spines, but it was just too fascinating.

At one point Sal came into the room and admonished us for having left the theater. We weren’t supposed to be in this room at all. But he came over and looked at what we were doing and saw that we were being incredibly respectful. He nodded, then left us alone to continue our work. That was pretty damn cool!

I don’t remember much else about that day, really. I know that I could not eat my sack lunch, which consisted of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a coke and maybe some potato chips. I also couldn’t touch roast beef for a week. But I do remember feeling as if I had seem something so spectacular, so singular that I would never really be the same. I had been let into the back room of reality that few get to see. Privileged to witness what we’re really made of.

I’ll try and dig up my original drawings from that trip from so long ago and scan them for inclusion in this entry.

And that leads us to my visit to USF’s Department of Anatomy. Joe Thiel is one of the instructors at Ringling’s Illustration department and he has been talking about their program with USF and asking if I’d like to go. Of course I would. I hoped, too, that the number of students that were interested would be fairly large as well.

We decided that I’d drive Joe and myself to the campus, the students getting there on their own steam. The weather was getting a bit colder (for Florida) and the sky was threatening rain. After arriving we waited a bit outside on Paul Glass, whom Joe has worked with on this over the years. The students began showing up and we stood in the cold for just a short bit.

Paul Glass finally showed up and handed us all release forms to sign. These stated that we understood the rules of the laboratory and all that.

The Ringling Program has been ongoing for 14 years under the auspices of the USF Department of Anatomy.

The program was originally pushed by Alan Cober, one of the great illustrators of our time. The idea was welcomed and encouraged by ? , a Swedish Doctor of ? who sat on the Nobel Prize Jury Committee, who thought it an excellent idea. One that expanded the knowledge of the human form to those outside of the medical field.

Paul Glass is a photographer, specializing in microscopic and Electron photography. He’s also the manager of the laboratory. He led us into the main entrance of the lab where there were large sinks and piles of hanging and discarded lab coats. He gave a lecture very similar in content to Sal Montano’s all those years ago, to respect these individuals and the importance of the donations of their bodies for others to learn more about the human anatomy.

He informed us that we were arriving late in the term and that the dissections had progressed further than usual. He said, too, that since these were students working on these dissections some of the things we would see were not necessarily well done, some things torn rather than expertly cut with the scalpel, etc., etc. The bodies were also in an advanced state of dissection. This would progress until there was nothing left to dissect, basically. All parts of an individual, he told us, were kept together in large containers. When the dissection was complete, the remains were taken to a crematorium and cremated. The ashes, if not claimed by a family, were taken to the Gulf of Mexico and scattered in the ocean. They go to great lengths to make sure they were well taken care of he said.

He then opened the door and let us in. We began at 9 AM and would continue until 3:30 or 4 PM. Inside was a large room with many high gurneys. On each was a cadaver. Some were lying on their backs, others turned partially over on their sides, others on their stomachs. Some had no heads, others no legs. There were several with heads cut down the middle and pulled apart, revealing a cross-section of the face, skull, brain, etc. Alarming at first. But then the clinical detachment kicks in and the desire to know more comes to the fore. An awesome sight.

On the walls of the laboratory were various framed pieces of artwork from previous years of the program. It was great to see that the medical school valued the work in that way, that it was a constant reminder on the walls of the lab. Very nice.

The first body I saw is the one that I found myself wanting to stay with. There was a grace to this figure that was so interesting to me. I was not able to do as many drawings as I’d have wished, but do think I captures some essence of that grace fulness. The body lay on its back with the head turned to the left. The left arm was thrown aside, the hand in a gesture very peaceful, as in repose. A flap of skin was pulled up and  back from the skull, and a smaller flap pulled down just below the right eye. Again, that odd sense of calm grace kept me with this figure. I did several drawings of this figure then moved on to a couple of other bodies.

There were also several large tub-like things there called “tanks”, one of which Paul opened for the students. Inside there were several heads and a torso. I didn’t wander over there until later, but the students gravitated to this spot and stayed there practically the whole time.

One of the more salient moments I had was when I was sort of roving a bit from the body I began with, just scouting the rest of the bodies in the room. There’s an odd thing that happens here in that the figures all sort of become genderless, and, in a way, ageless, though the age is more along the aged side rather than youthful. I was passing by one figure and noticed fingernail polish on the nails of the visible hand. That little bit of reality, of vanity and mortality hit hard. It brings it back home to you that these are people who have lived their lives, laughed, cried, everything. Very powerful.