Table Reading

Our October 2014 “Art, Anatomy, and the Body: Vesalius 500″ festival guest curator, artist and anatomist Riva Lehrer, describer her first experience with cadavers and how that shaped her thinking about bodies, anatomy, and art.

"In the Yellow Woods," by Riva Lehrer. Click to enlarge.

“In the Yellow Woods,” by Riva Lehrer. Click to enlarge.

The first time I ever saw a cadaver was a day in early September of 2006. The light was perfect—a glowing blue and gold herald of the coming Jewish New Year. I walked into lab behind Dr. Norm Lieska, head of Gross Anatomy at University of Illinois at Chicago, and a group of M1 students, all gangly in their brand-new starched white coats and spotless scrubs. The laboratory was a sort of extended corridor, comprised of a series of interlocking rooms, lit by high, industrial windows like those in an old factory. Burnished shafts of sunlight slanted across the rows of steel tables, skimming across the unzipped body bags. Each contained a cadaver that had been preserved and prepped for student exploration. For the main, though, they were pristine; head and hands demurely wrapped, all original parts on board.

I’d been warned that I might be nauseated or disgusted by the bodies. I braced myself to be sickened by the miasma of chemicals in the air. I did not expect to be overwhelmed by the sheer generosity represented in that room. Twenty-five people had decided that we needed to understand the human body in the most direct and unmediated way. They’d signed donation papers that gave us the right to read the history of their own flesh. I felt the impact of that gift even from my first steps into lab.

The dark vinyl of the body bags appeared as if gilded. This was the last moment they would all appear the same. We would pull down the zippers, and reveal the wild variations within. I am not in any way a religious person, but I thought: if I felt this kind of awe in synagogue, I’d be a very different kind of Jew. I was at the lab as part of my position as visiting artist in Medical Humanities at the Medical School of the University of Illinois at Chicago. Each cadaver in Gross Lab was assigned to a team of about 10 students; at the start of the semester I’d been assigned to one such team. These students worked on the same person for the entire year. Scalpels peeled away each archeological layer, skin down to the deepest core. It was a bizarre form of intimate knowledge—both closer and more abstract than their inhabitants had had in life. I began to focus on comparing the bodies from table to table, and to show the members of my team that each cadaver had its idiosyncrasies. None of them were ringers for the photographs in their Color Atlas of Human Anatomy.

"Theresia Degener," by Riva Lehrer. International Human Rights lawyer Theresia Degener is one of the drafters of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. As a member of the German generation of children whose mothers were given thalidomide, Degener  accomplishes all she wants to do through a range of inventive strategies.  Click to enlarge.

“Theresia Degener,” by Riva Lehrer. International Human Rights lawyer Theresia Degener is one of the drafters of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. As a member of the German generation of children whose mothers were given thalidomide, Degener accomplishes all she wants to do through a range of inventive strategies. Click to enlarge.

In all the time I was there, though, I never saw a body anything like mine. I was much too intimidated to ask why. Perhaps a body that was too different from those dissection pictures could not function as a primer? (Oddly enough, when I visited a different cadaver lab last year, a bare scoliotic spine was on a table in the back of the room, picked clean of the body in which it had dwelt).

I was the visiting artist in Medical Humanities at the Medical School of the University of Illinois at Chicago for four years, during which I taught figure drawing and portraiture for med students. I’ve gone on to teach those classes at Northwestern University School of Medicine, and as the professor of anatomy at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (I’m on leave now to pursue other projects). Each year of teaching and study has only increased my sense of wonder at what a living body can do. All bodies (human and animal) are so densely woven with function, yet can accommodate such dysfunction.

I’ve asked my students at both medical schools whether I’m the only disabled person they interact with outside of clinical rotations. The answer is yes. I wonder if my professional presence changes what they think when they begin clinicals, though I also wonder if they begin silent diagnoses when I walk into the classroom. My SAIC students do often seem startled on their first day. (Though maybe that’s just an effect of the tables full of bones. Hard to tell with the young and ironic.) They may not have medical knowledge, but they are trained observers, and mine is the body at the center of the room, at least until our model climbs onto the platform in his/her birthday suit.

Riva Lehrer with students at SAIC in 2012.

Riva Lehrer with students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2012.

For years, I was the elephant in the room. Eventually, I stopped pretending I wasn’t there and began to use myself as an exemplar. This doesn’t come easy—sometimes, my attempts at coping through humor sound like outtakes from Young Frankenstein—but it does produce a willingness on the part of students to ask uncomfortable questions. As the cadavers prove year after year, normal is a matter of degree. Our bodies let us live so many ways. Healing is creativity made manifest.

I’m writing this just before another New Year. I hope that 2015 brings you joy of your own mysteries, and that you will follow those secret trails through your own glowing, shadowed, and gilded rooms.

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