Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Imaging in medicine: fine art to medical art

Arabella Proffer
Cleveland, Ohio, United States

Amputee Venus, 2014
Arabella Proffer

Studying anatomy was something I had never taken seriously or practiced much in art school. Frankly, I was mediocre at it. As a result, I developed into a mannerist painter and on occasion distorted anatomy to add an artificial quality. I find this strange, considering my new fascination the last four years is with detailed and gorgeous medical illustrations from the 17th and 18th centuries. They reveal what fragile beings we are, and yet the macabre and gruesome nature of the subject is surrounded by baroque columns and fussy drapery worthy of an aristocratic country house. Although they might be gorgeous, these illustrations were meant only for an elite set of physicians, not for the patient. Today, technology has made it easier for patients to have a doctor show them what is happening, not just tell them. This is especially helpful for someone like myself, who thinks in pictures, not words.

My work changed drastically in two ways in 2010. The first was when I found myself creating surreal biomorphic organisms, strange hybrids of flowers, cells, and symbols that appeared like organisms from another planet. It was only later that I found out I had a tumor that had grown tentacles crawling through my body at an alarming rate. When my doctor showed me the scans, it looked almost identical to what I had been painting—tentacles and all. In the process of being treated for what was a rare and aggressive cancer, I wondered what it would have been like to endure the cures and surgeries of the past—especially as a women. At Cleveland Clinic I got used to being poked, prodded, getting naked, and having fingers in . . . well, all the places you could imagine! But a few centuries ago if I had been a woman of means, doctors would not have dared do such things except a very superficial examination. Modesty over accuracy.

After having a large section of my leg removed—in addition to some interesting restructuring—my artwork changed a second way, when I began researching medicine from the Middle Ages up to the 17th century. It began by my finding images showing that even the treatment for my particular cancer was still amputation—such as artworks depicting third century twins, Saints Cosmas and Damian and the transplant of the Ethiopian leg.1 This bred a series I called “Ephemeral Antidotes”—a good way to work out my anger and be even more thankful that what I was going through was nothing compared to old remedies and techniques. It makes one wonder which medical practices today will be viewed as cruel by future generations. Will we be lambasted in twenty years for chemotherapy? Is injecting poison into a person’s veins, after all, so different from using mercury to treat syphilis? The emotional content was too much to resist. My past art and interests were focused on how society lived in history, or how you could have been rich and important, but if sick you would still receive brutal or worthless treatment. While these subjects and their stories are of my own creation, the remedies and belief systems are based in historical fact. Ocular prosthesis, syphilis, amputation, “monster babies” 2 as described in Aristotle’s Masterpiece, and treatments for the plague were just some of the subjects I chose to depict.

Both series bring together a new interest in medical illustration, microbiology, disease, and the evolution of cells. I explore the particular roles that organisms, medicine, DNA, and hybrids play, all while creating from my own imagination and instinct. I have since painted yet more tissues and masses that resemble what is found to be growing inside me. Perhaps this is a bizarre way of attempting to control the cells and viruses in my body.

Transforming those emotional impressions and having them stare back at me on an MRI has been quite an experience and highlights the importance of images for both medical professionals and patients. What the patient says is truth might not be what the body reveals as the truth. Perhaps this is why more medical schools are looking at applicants with artistic skills such as drawing and painting? Medical illustration has enlightened us that the human body is a machine; enzymes, cells, viruses, and tissues. I do not know if each of these entities has a mind of its own, but I have learned to look objectively and be slightly detached when it comes to viewing of human bodies and their inner workings. It lessens the rage I feel at times whenever my health takes a bad turn and helps me to understand my own body better. This is especially useful when I come upon an imaging technician who assumes I do not know what I am looking at. In fact, these days I am often asked if I work in radiology or am a nurse myself.

When my surgeons and oncologists learned I was an artist, they steered away from saying in words what was happening to me in too much detail. Instead, they said, “Come over I want to show you these images because I know you’ll understand.” And it is true. It will be something I spot right away but would have been difficult to explain over the phone: a cyst in the lateral cortex of the femur, or a lesion that has expanded 4 cm in diameter. They even wheel in the x-rays or show me photographs as I recover mere hours after surgery. I have developed a reputation for spotting trouble spots and anomalies as fast as they do, something that the medical staff explain as simply, “well, she’s an artist.”

By the way, after all these years painting people, going to medical lectures, and looking at medical art: I am still terrible at anatomy.


  1. Saint-Lucy.com. The Ethiopian’s Leg, Master of Los Balbases, ‘Saints Cosmas and Damian Performing a Miraculous Cure by Transplantation of a Leg.’ c. 1495.
  2. Mary E. Fissell. Hairy Women and Naked Truths: Gender and the Politics of Knowledge in Aristotle’s Masterpiece.

ARABELLA PROFFER, BFA, is an artist whose loose narrative themes revolve around a fascination with punk rock, aristocracy, Renaissance fashions, aging socialites, and medical history. She attended Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA before receiving her BFA from CalArts, and has participated in exhibitions throughout North America, Europe, the Middle East, and Australia. Her book The National Portrait Gallery of Kessa: The Art of Arabella Proffer was published in 2011 by Cooperative Press. She has appeared in The Wall Street JournalThe Plain DealerSF WeeklyThe LA TImesGOOD MagazineThe Harvard GazetteSnob, and more.

Winter 2015



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