Drawing Death: In UB's Gross Anatomy Lab, Artists Explore the Human Body

Drawings of cadavers by visual studies teacher and students marry science with art

Release Date: September 7, 2011


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A exhibit of work artist Joan Linder created in UB's Gross Anatomy Lab opens Sept. 8 in the Anderson Gallery. (Photo courtesy of Liz Linder)

Joan Linder's "Table 8" and other works are powerful examples of how science and art can intersect. (Photo courtesy of Joan Linder and Mixed Greens gallery)

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The life-sized drawing of the cadaver is titled "Table 8."

About six feet long, it shows the human body in a state of partial dissection, with flaps of leathery skin peeled back to reveal the flesh below. Lines of pen and ink capture intricate details: the sinews in the muscles, the texture of the bones.

This study of a corpse is one of three that artist Joan Linder has completed since 2006 in an unusual location: the University at Buffalo's Gross Anatomy Lab, where medical and dental students carry out dissections.

The bodies are donated through UB's Anatomical Gift Program, and they are used -- in compliance with donors' wishes and state laws and regulations -- for education and research.

Linder's observational drawings are a powerful demonstration of how one discipline can inform another, of how science and art can intersect.

One of her portraits will be on exhibit at a faculty show that opens tomorrow (Sept. 8) at the UB Anderson Gallery. The piece portrays a cadaver with its head covered and turned from the viewer, a position that reflects the human body as an object, a theme present both in anatomy and in Linder's art.

A second, related work -- this one a full-scale drawing depicting one section of UB's gross anatomy lab -- goes on display tomorrow (Sept. 8) at New York City's Mixed Greens gallery. It's titled "Where Death Delights in Helping the Living," and it's huge: 10 by 15 feet.

Linder, an assistant professor of visual studies at UB, teaches figure drawing. From her perspective, the gross anatomy laboratory is an interdisciplinary workshop.

It's a place where artists can train alongside medical students -- all with the goal of learning more about the human form, and always with respect for the tremendous gift that body donors have made to support anatomical studies.

Linder's fascination with anatomy began five or six years ago, when she heard that Alan Cober, a famed illustrator and UB faculty member, had once brought students to the gross anatomy lab to sketch cadavers.

Linder asked the facility's director, Raymond Dannenhoffer, whether she could bring a class of her own. His immediate answer was "yes."

"I think I had a responsibility to make it happen," said Dannenhoffer, who knew Cober before the artist died in 1998. "People donate their bodies to the university to help the university educate its students. To me, we have a responsibility to these donors to use these donations as broadly as we can to educate people. Just like medical students, art students have a need to understand the human form."

Since stepping into the lab for the first time, Linder has brought two classes of figure drawing students there to explore the contours of the body. She plans to return this spring with a third cohort.

Linder's many hours in the lab have helped her see connections between her own work and that of the medical students she observes when she's on site. She became so intrigued by gross anatomy that she audited a class in the subject.

"I was so excited by the environment of the lab. It was just so interesting -- who was coming, who was going, what was going on," Linder said. "Gross anatomy is science, observation, with the unaided eye. Perceptual drawing is, in a way, the same thing."

"In the university, everyone gets stuck in their own department, so to get out of the Center for the Arts seemed kind of great," she added. "The lab is just this vibrant place, this strange place, where the living and the dead are colliding, where the institutional and personal are coming together."

Dannenhoffer, who has a poster of Cober's cadaver paintings hanging on the wall of his office, said Linder's art and presence in the lab have likewise influenced the way he views his line of work.

"It adds perspective to what we do," Dannenhoffer said. "It's something we do every day. So while we respect it, sometimes it can become a little ordinary. Seeing how someone from the outside is awed by the anatomy -- seeing how they interpret it -- reminds us that it's very special."

The series of works Linder has completed in the gross anatomy lab include not only renderings of cadavers, but also pen-and-ink interpretations of the heart, lungs and brain. Like "Where Death Delights in Helping the Living," those drawings were done on a one-to-one scale with their subjects, a ratio typical of Linder's work.

For information on the UB Anderson Gallery show featuring Linder's work, visit http://bit.ly/oKHLpw. For information on the Mixed Greens show featuring Linder's work, visit http://mixedgreens.com/exhibitions.html.

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, a flagship institution in the State University of New York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB's more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of the Association of American Universities.

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