Medical imaging is typically used as data in a patient case or body of research. Such images are seldom appreciated outside of being highly objective and serving the singular purpose of allowing us to answer a single question and perhaps generate a few more to drive treatment forward. However, these images have equal capacity to create a narrative for the viewer, drawing them into the experience of the patient or helping them understand the story behind a body of research. Looking closer at photographs and scans of our tissues, seeing the ways they organize themselves into vast networks to facilitate life, we gain an awareness of the staggering power and beauty that lies within. What these images also challenge us to contemplate when we view them in a narrative context is what is not seen.
Kriota Wilberg’s “Root Canal,” a studio art piece from the Spring 2013 Intima, is a powerful example of taking medical imagery out of its traditional context so that we may begin to see beyond the image before us. Wilberg does this by transforming an image of a root canal into textile art. The intricate needlework of this piece “attempts to create emotional attachment to disconnective medical imagery of the body…using traditional domestic materials” to invoke and combine “the sentimental attachment one feels to family heirlooms, portraiture and ephemera with the desire for attachment and intimacy we often experience when gazing upon the clinical image of a beloved unborn child or a loved one’s internal structures.”
My piece “Learning/Unlearning,” a diptych featuring two of my own echocardiograms from when I was recovering from a rare form of heart failure, seen in person is large and highly sculptural. It is meant to create the sensation of standing in front of two doors that invite the viewer to step into a period of instability and transition for me that had precipitated as these two shivering, pulsing ultrasounds. “Root Canal” spoke to me because it is similarly created to transcend the purpose of the image from which it was derived to allow intimacy, emotion and connection to enter into a space where it would normally not be allowed exist. Our x-rays and scans have the capacity to uniquely capture our most salient moments, reminding us that our capacity for resilience, healing and connection are embedded in the memory of our tissues.
Helen Harrison graduated in the spring of 2016 from the University of California, Berkeley with a B.A. in Public Health. She is interested in neuroscience, behavioral health and medicine and hopes encourage the use of artistic narratives in science and medicine as her academic career progresses. Harrison’s artwork centralizes around the idea that life experiences can manifest themselves in the body's tissues and the way identities can form around trauma, disability and the healing process. Her art features scientific images from her research or imagery derived from her own medical records. Through turning these images into large-scale, landscape-like pieces, Harrison hopes to draw the viewer into her experience as a patient or bring into view an otherwise unseen anatomical world.
© 2016 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine