Yesterday I had my first interactive experience with a cadaver. As an artist who is self taught in science and art, this was an incredible opportunity. A friend who attends the University of Western United States knew about my interest in seeing or dissecting a human body, with interest in the spine and brain. He offered to have me along for a cadaver lab review as his guest. I had no idea this was an opportunity afforded to folks. I can be your plus one to a cadaver review? Yes please! I will RSVP to that!
Before going in I was nervous about the experience. Just like when I was preparing to dissect my first eyeball in the Art Lab, I was concerned I wouldn't have the stomach for it. That maybe I would be repulsed or that I would somehow freak out about the dead body on the table and ruin the learning experience afforded to me. Again, just like in my Art Lab, I had nothing to worry about. The whole experience was rather beautiful really. The people who were there, including my friend, were gracious with their time and experience, answering my questions and teaching me about the systems as we reflected muscles and exposed hidden nerves. At first I kept my distance, afraid to be rude by touching the body, which of course I wanted to do, but they urged me to experience it for myself.
"You should feel the difference between a nerve and an artery. Here, squeeze this."
They asked me what I wanted to see and I told them I most recently was studying the spine. The cadaver was initially supine, facing up and I said something along the lines of "but I don't want to be a bother. I'm sure I can learn a lot as is." They laughed and were very eager to turn over the cadaver and explore the back with me. They were as excited about this experience as I was, it seemed. One of the students there had the same awe and love in his eyes as I did. "Isn't this amazing and beautiful?!" He asked, eyes wide as he moved the cadaver's arm around, exploring the brachial plexus. I agreed, elated to find that we shared this sense of awe and passion. I hadn't expected that, and was so pleased to nerd out with the students.
They supported me investigating, palpating, connecting dots and talking over what we were looking at. In very little time I felt rather comfortable with the cadaver (while continuing to be very careful and polite of course). The nerves! Oh my goodness the nervous system is so much more beautiful in person than could ever be illustrated in the books I've been reading. Tracing the nerve's paths from the spine, running beneath the muscles, branching, splitting, innervating... ah it's gorgeous. Seeing the brachial plexus branching from the cervical spine and casting off across the shoulder and down the arm was beautiful. This, I expected. The brachial plexus is gorgeous no matter where you see it. However, I was surprised by the beauty of the reflected muscles in the leg, seeing the thick multitudes of nerves branching through the thigh and calf. This image has implanted itself firmly in my mind, and I would be very surprised if this didn't lead to a drawing or two in the future. I am inspired to create a piece on the leg and arm, reflecting the muscles and exposing the nerves as they innervate the muscles. The hand has always been something I've wanted to draw. In time, I will, and this experience has added to my passion to do so.
Once they flipped over the cadaver, we explored the intrinsic muscles of the back, reflecting the erector spinae muscle so we could locate and palpate the transverse processes of a lumbar vertebrae. That was a particularly cool moment. I mentioned that I currently have a shoulder injury to my rotator cuff and they eagerly went about pointing out all the muscles involved in the rotator cuff and again, urging me to feel and explore it myself. So now, here I am, not only exploring a cadaver and getting a hands on experience of the body, but I'm relating it to my own and to my personal experience.
The person leading the review had wandered off earlier when I mentioned I was interested in the spine and collected smaller specimens from their permanent collection. There were four sections laid out on another table for us to explore. We picked up each one in turn and talked through what we were looking at. I saw the cauda equina in the lumbar region and asked about how the spinal cord moves in daily life and how the spinal nerves exit the spinal cord and exit at each vertebral foramen. In the cervical section there was a beautiful dissection of the spinal cord revealing the meninges. At one point I touched a dorsal root ganglion. It was larger than I had imagined it would be. In the cervical region we could make out the grey butterfly with its rather angular horns that's notable of that region. There was also the lower half of the skull to explore, where we could see quite clearly the home of the cerebellum.
The experience was incredible. It was a room designed for curiosity and I was surprised how at home I felt there.
This is an example of some of the unbelievable experiences I've had over the past two years for my anatomy and physiology series. Being that I'm self taught, everything I've done this past two years was a first, and to me, every part of it was amazing. This experience is one I'll never forget, and which helped to reignite my interest in the body. I hope to be able to return as a guest in the future, and am particularly excited for their quarter focusing on the brain.
Next week is my solo show, "Inside" at Red e Gallery, exhibiting my entire series so far on anatomy and physiology, and where I am revealing my finished piece on the spine. I feel this cadaver lab experience is perfect to have had before this reveal. I hope to see you there so we can nerd out together in person.
Here is a sneak peek of my spinal column drawing. It is 32"x40", making it one of my largest pieces. It is drawn witih active range of motion for each vertebra, bone mineral density, dopamine for voluntary motor control and ATP. The spinal nerves are drawn with equations relating to signal creation and propagation. The detail image below is from the cervical region of the spine.
Here is a link to the event on Facebook.