In the 1990s, when Bettyann H. Kevles, M.A., asked listeners of the National Public Radio program Science Friday to imagine their bodies intertwined with medical technology, she received seven responses, all from artists. All seven had experienced imaging techniques such as X-rays, magnetic resonance imaging, computed tomography (CT) scans and other routine procedures. One described them as “portraits in light.”
A lecturer in Yale’s Program in the History of Medicine and Science, Kevles studies how new technologies become a part of everyday life. But having grown up in a family of painters and having studied painting herself, Kevles has a long-standing interest in art. Over the years, she has built up a library of work by visual artists who explore their medical conditions in their paintings. She explored this theme, in part, in her 1997 book,Naked to the Bone: Medical Imaging in the 20th Century, and inPicturing DNA, written with Marilyn Nissenson and published online in 2000.
At a symposium on brain imaging at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington in February, Kevles presented the work of visual artists who had used medical imaging to create self-portraits. The survey reached back to the early 20th century and the work of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, whose spine was severely injured in an accident when she was an 18-year-old student, and whose self-portraits show her body and spine from the inside in a manner reminiscent of X-rays. Many contemporary artists have incorporated more modern techniques. New York artist Laura Ferguson, who suffers from scoliosis, studied anatomy, consulted with orthopaedic surgeons and radiologists and imaged her body with a 3D spiral CT scan, which allowed her to visually manipulate her skeleton to observe it from different angles and in different postures. Her Visible Skeleton Series, a visual autobiography created by blending many layers of colors on paper, was on display at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington this spring.
Since writing her 1997 book, Kevles has continued her study of artists such as Jennifer Hall of Boston, who has temporal lobe epilepsy and used an electroencephalogram to capture her brain waves during a seizure. She then used a computer program to transform the erratic spikes into a three-dimensional image and cast it in silver in the shape of a tiara.
In her more recent work, Kevles has explored the idea that turning medical imaging techniques into tools of self-exploration allows artists to work through their illness so they can get past seeing themselves as victims of it. “Having seen whatever it is—plaques in their brain, or an EEG of a crazy electrical storm—they no longer think of themselves as epileptics, for example. They’re people with particular parts of their bodies that don’t work,” Kevles said. “Many artists feel that their art, in this way, gives them power over their conditions.”