Body, Medical Humanities, News

Beyond comfort

I spent Saturday drawing. The idea of drawing holds cosy memories of the art room at school where I loved going but felt guilty because I should have been studying. So why was I outside my comfort zone on Saturday? Partly because I hadn’t put pencil to paper in decades (other than to write) but also because I was trying to draw foetal and neonatal specimens.

I signed up a year ago for a workshop called ‘Drawing Parallels: Artistic encounters with pathology’ run at UCL by Lucy Lyons and Lucy has had to cope with delays due to waiting for a public display licence and by the time the workshop came around I was both excited and apprehensive.

Since the Human Tissue Act of 2004 (largely prompted by the Alder Hey scandal) older pathology specimens have entered a controversial space and nobody really knows what to do with them. Lucy has been running these workshops as part of a research project to ‘help museums understand perceptions and reactions to the way specimens are maintained and displayed, improve how collections are used and promote the value of these unique specimens’.

There were ten of us in the Rock Room at UCL – how strange to sit among displays of hard inanimate rocks while contemplating foetal specimens. It made me reflect on how extraordinary our world is, how varied its patterns and makings. And how determined we are to collect and classify.

Lucy ran the workshop with great care, determination and focus. She started by showing us her own beautiful drawings of various specimens, asking us to respond to these and discuss what came up for us. Next she displayed photographs of the same specimens – this time we were to respond by drawing from the photographs. It took me a while to adjust to moving my pencil in a way that helped me look, holding back for the time being my thoughts and words.

These first two stages – Lucy’s drawings and the photographs – were like a slow unveiling. They were a way into the pain and pathos of the subject matter and allowed questions to arise spontaneously in the group: what right have we to examine these tiny beings – many of them never born, some misshapen, some at early stages of gestation, some developed to full term; how should we honour these remains; what is to be done with such specimens when they are no longer wanted; what are we to make of the many potential narratives that come into our heads when we look at them; should the specimens be stored or displayed, and if so how; what can they teach us; and so on.

The third stage of the workshop was to encounter the specimens themselves in their nakedness and vulnerability. We were all ready, I think. The specimens were set before us on the wide table, and we drew them, or tried to. I studied four specimens and started drawing one after another, but for each I had to add words – my drawing felt so inadequate – of course the words did too, but somehow my own habitual language of response felt more fluent and less apologetic, giving me a greater sense of human connection than my clumsy sketches.

But because I had to try and draw them, I shall hold those small bodies clearly in my mind’s eye for a long time to come. Another workshop attendee said that drawing the specimens made her profoundly grateful for the skill of the pathologists who had prepared them like gifts for us to witness and observe. I would second that. And I would add that the intense concentration and attention of everyone in the room felt like an appropriate, respectful and dignified honouring of these anonymous short lives and the grief that must have surrounded them.

7 thoughts on “Beyond comfort”

  1. Clare, this sounds like an extraordinary experience. I’m sure it will give you much to think about as your process not just your responses, but the thoughts/ideas that emerge from those responses.
    Catherine xxx

  2. Yes, thanks Catherine. I think the fact of being asked to draw made it a very particularly multilayered experience, and whatever comes from that will feel different to my normal writing/thinking process. So interesting the way we engage differently depending on the mode of immediate response asked of us. C xx

    1. I agree – and it’s probably very good for us all to leave our ‘comfort zones’ and try a different way of responding. I’m sure different bits of our brains engage when we draw rather than write!

  3. Clare, you never cease to surprise! What an amazing project. I wonder if this will lead to more writing rather than more drawing. A fantastic way in. I was momentarily confused by the mention of Rocks… imagining a fossilised foetus
    and instantly my mind was off into another world. Then I reread and saw that was the name of the room and they were around. But the foetal specimens were not preserved in the rocks! x Monica

    1. Thanks – yes it was quite something. I’m letting the experience settle before putting pen or pencil to paper (and it will definitely be writing rather than more drawing!). Clare x

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