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.

Reflections on “Art, Anatomy and the Body: Vesalius 500”

Our “Art, Anatomy, and the Body: Vesalius 500″ festival guest curator, artist and anatomist Riva Lehrer, reflects on the event.

Riva Lehrer, left, with Lisa O'Sullivan, director of the Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health. Photo by Charles Manley.

Riva Lehrer, left, with Lisa O’Sullivan, director of the Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health. Photo by Charles Manley.

My approach as co-curator of “Art, Anatomy and the Body: Vesalius 500” was to ask how we use anatomy today to understand what it means to be human. Throughout history, we’ve used metaphor to organize our concepts of the body. We’ve imagined it as a vessel full of roiling humors, as an elaborate clock, as a regulated factory, as a robot and a computer, to name just a few. Even anatomical study is affected by metaphor and symbolism, and often guides what we see.

As science creates new perspectives on human (and non-human) anatomy, society responds by re-imagining new possibilities. When we internalize these visions we live differently in our bodies. “Art, Anatomy and the Body: Vesalius 500” brought together artists, writers, and scholars to discuss about how we see ourselves now and how we construct ourselves as public bodies.

As emcee, I had the pleasure of introducing Ann Fox, Sandie Yi, Dan Garrison, Sander Gilman, Nuha Nazy, Dima Elissa, Bill Hayes, Steven Assael and Alice Dreger, who were among the more than 25 festival participants.

Chun-Shan “Sandie” Yi. Photo by Charles Manley

Chun-Shan “Sandie” Yi. Photo by Charles Manley

Curator Ann Fox and artist Chun-Shan “Sandie” Yi started the day with an overview of contemporary artists who explore identity through medical and anatomical imagery, including artists who tackle our continuing discomfort with HIV/AIDS, a disease that from the very first raised issues of identity and ostracism. Sander Gilman furthered our thoughts about unacceptable bodies by discussing how teaching posture in schools has been used to control and regulate bodies, and make them socially predictable.

Dan Garrison brought us back to the core of the festival via the origin of Vesalius’ Fabrica. He posited some very intriguing ideas around who Vesalius may have been; he may have had a variant body (possibly dwarfism), and this may have contributed to how he created his great work.

Dan Garrison. Photo by Charles Manley.

Dan Garrison. Photo by Charles Manley.

Identity is always a struggle between the specifics of individuality and alliance with group affiliation. This echoes the direction of modern medicine; treatments are becoming increasingly targeted to individual bodies, whether through genetics, prosthetics, or adapted drug regimens. We glimpsed this future during the ProofX presentation, with Nuha Nazy and Dima Elissa. ProofX uses 3D printing to produce extremely precise implants, surgical models, and adaptive devices for a wide range of conditions. It’s anatomical interface at an unprecedented level.

ProofX's 3D-printing demonstration.

ProofX’s 3D-printing demonstration. Photo by Charles Manley.

Bill Hayes engages medical history in order to understand his own biography. His research blends with memoir and hands-on experience, as witnessed by The Anatomist, the remarkable story of Henry Gray, author of Gray’s Anatomy. Hayes steps across the boundary between modern identity and historical precedent, here discussing the history of exercise, in order to show us how we arrived at our present state.

Anatomy and poetics also wove together in the work of Steven Assael. His paintings and drawings are highly (and gracefully) accurate, yet manage to be astute and nuanced examinations of his subjects’ personalities. He transfixed the audience by the lushness of his technique and the drama of his compositions.

Alice Dreger. Photo by Charles Manley.

Alice Dreger. Photo by Charles Manley.

Our excellent final event was a talk by bioethicist Alice Dreger. She traced the origins of contemporary medical photography as well as taking a fresh look at traditional anatomical illustration. Dreger has thought deeply about how we signal our identity through bodily choice. She raised questions about what caused doctors to lose touch with the vulnerability of people in medical settings, and to describe variant bodies in dehumanizing ways. She also pointed out that doctors often can’t admit the taboo pleasure of viewing physical anomalies, and how that covert pleasure affects their relationships with patients.

The human body has its secret, unspoken existence and its public presentation, meant to be decoded by other human beings. Anatomy would seem to be an objective bridge between the two, yet can be just as complicated and interpretive as any form of art. Our festival let us perceive the dialogue between poetics and science, and between inner and outer realities of the body.

For more images of the festival, visit our Facebook page.
Read a summary of the festival by presenter Kriota Willberg: Part 1 and Part 2
Click here for a blog from Hyperallergic.
Read “Seeing is Believing: New York Academy of Medicine’s Vesalius 500th Year Celebrations,” an article by presenter Brandy Schillace, PhD.

Postures of Childhood: A Conversation

This blog post presents a discussion between Riva Lehrer, artist and anatomist and our “Art, Anatomy, and the Body: Vesalius 500” festival guest curator, and Sander Gilman, distinguished professor of the liberal arts and sciences and professor of psychiatry at Emory University. Dr. Gilman will present “STAND UP STRAIGHT: Toward a History of the Science of Posture” at our October 18th festival. Register here.

Riva Lehrer:

Sander, when reading a scholar’s work, I often wonder whether it relates to personal experiences that set them on the path of intellectual obsession. For me, your work is so empathetic on the subject of difference it’s as if you’ve lived in the bodies of those you’ve written about. It’s fascinating to find out where that path started for you.

Riva Lehrer as a young child. Photo courtesy of Riva Lehrer.

Riva Lehrer as a young child. Photo courtesy of Riva Lehrer.

It seems that both of us were confronted with the problem of difference beginning in elementary school. Mine began right away. From kindergarten through eighth grade, it didn’t matter whether I was in math class, or English, or social studies; I knew at some point an aide would show up at the classroom door and call my name. All us kids knew this; twice an hour, someone would get pulled out of class and sent to the big open room on the third floor. There, we’d get down on one of the vinyl mats on the floor and start following orders.

These were our daily physical therapy sessions. Almost every student at Randall J. Condon School for Handicapped Children went through this same routine. Most of us had some variety of orthopedic impairment. Condon punctuated our academics with treatments for these perceived aberrations. My brothers were not disabled. They went to regular schools, where their growing bodies were exercised in gym class. This may have been wretched on its own terms but was at least somewhat communal, being arranged around games and team sports. Here, in PT, it was isolating.

Sander Gilman:

Why is gym always the horror! When you are in third grade gym is a horror in most cases any way—except for the two guys you always get chose first for ALL the teams — but when you wear high boots with VERY long laces that had to be cross tied all the way to the top and those boots had metal braces in them, even going into the locker room was a horror. Last one in (on purpose) and last one dressed. And then gym itself—jump, climb, run. But you run like a duck, the gym teacher shouted: STAND UP STRAIGHT!


A class at the Condon School. Photo courtesy of Riva Lehrer.

A class at the Condon School, with Riva Lehrer kneeling, second from left. Photo courtesy of Riva Lehrer. Click to enlarge

Well, we never played any games together. Whenever I showed up, there’d be 8 or 10 kids already in the PT suite, mired in separate islands of exercise mats, or on high tables that put them at arm’s level with the physical therapists. We half-ignored each other, though if someone let out a loud enough squawk that faux-privacy would end. As a rule, we were an obedient lot; splaying like starfishes on huge medicine balls, lifting our knees, doing wobbly push-ups, clutching squishy objects to build up our hand strength. In the 1960s, most disabled children weren’t even given basic academic instruction; Condon was unusual in its goals to give us some kind of mainstream education. But it was clear that in the battle between teaching disabled children how to read and pushing our bodies towards normalcy, the toss would always land us back on a vinyl mat.

In that room, every weakness and failure of our bodies was brought to our attention, and then set upon by the therapists. I was told I walked as if I had a broken leg, dragging it a half-step behind me.


In truth, a duck was not wrong. I waddled without my shoes and indeed with them. Standing was hard, running was difficult and the worst part of it was being always the one who was different. I could never quite stand up the way the gym teacher or others wanted me to. Now I know that all third graders KNOW that they are too different, too visible, too comical, but somehow I knew I really was odd. STAND UP STRAIGHT! Still haunts me.


Kids at Condon used to be called abnormal. Condon was a refuge of sortsat least we weren’t called the brutal names people used outside of school. The PT suite was the only place when I ever saw some of my friends out of their wheelchairs. If a kid could stand at all, the PTs made us watch ourselves walk. (it turned our most of my friends were taller than me; my assumption that I was one of the taller kids in class was an illusion). The room was divided by long metal poles that formed a narrow corridor ending in a tall mirror. I’d start at the far end, clutching the steel poles and trying to get my legs to regulate themselves as instructed. My reflection swayed and bounced as if I were on a ship in my own personal storm.

Riva Lehrer teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, circa 2008. Photo courtesy of Riva Lehrer.

Riva Lehrer teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, circa 2008. Photo courtesy of Riva Lehrer.

Until I stopped growing (ending up at 4′ 9″), and my spine was less curved, my limp was most the obvious sign of my disability. Thing was, my limp didn’t hurt. I didn’t even feel it. I only saw it in that tall mirror, where I watched myself list and sway, buffeted by those invisible shipboard winds. I seldom thought about the way I walked at all, but my doctors did, and operated. Nothing made much difference. A year after surgery, my limp always came back, tenacious as malaria.

I am not one who thinks that impairments should not be treated, or that bodies should not be given the chance to experience individual interpretations of health. But health cannot take its bearings from the polestar of normal. Bodies should be supported and encouraged according to specific, idiosyncratic parameters. What was missing from those well-meaning treatments at Condon was any pleasure in the body itself. These were the bodies we’d had at birth. According to our parents, teachers, and doctors, we’d come ashore in broken vessels.

For us, posture regulation, gait repair, and physical therapy rested on a bedrock of shame. We were not given the option of simply loving our bodies as-is, and exercising those bodies out of delight and wonder for what our bodies could do.


The thing is that that sense of being odd never leaves you as, perhaps, we never stop being third graders when we look deep into our souls. When I started my new project on the history and meaning of posture, the title seemed obvious: STAND UP STRAIGHT! We all write autobiographies, even those who avoid writing autobiographies. That is true of artists as well as scholars.


Our early lives taught us both that crooked is a posture that tilts your head and gives you a most unexpected view of the world.

Guest curator Riva Lehrer on Vesalius 500

Our “Art, Anatomy, and the Body: Vesalius 500” festival guest curator, artist and anatomist Riva Lehrer, describes some of her thinking about bodies, anatomy and art.

In 1543, when Andreas Vesalius published his De humani corporis fabrica (On the fabric of the human body) many contemporaries refused to accept his results. They contradicted canonical texts passed down over millennia: belief and expectation trumped direct experience and observation.

It’s easy to smile condescendingly at such pig-headedness. Yet we can scarcely look in the mirror without being caught in a fog of distortion. Every day we’re overloaded with information about how we should look and how our bodies should work. There are still plenty of ways in which our biases form medicine, and medicine, in turn, forms us.

"Circle Stories #4: Riva Lehrer" 1998  self portrait

“Circle Stories #4: Riva Lehrer” (1998).

I was born with visible disabilities. My body has always been seen as lacking, in need of correction, and medically unacceptable. My parents and doctors pushed me to have countless procedures to render it more “normal” as well as more systemically functional. These were two different streams of anxiety—how I worked and how I looked— yet they became inextricably woven together. My life in the hospital gave me a tremendously intimate view of medicine, as does the fact that I come from a family of doctors, nurses, and pharmacists. It gave me an acute awareness of how medical choices control and shape our bodies.

I first studied anatomy at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and later at the University of Illinois at Chicago, as a visiting artist in the cadaver lab. I often think about what my first anatomy professor told me, many years ago. She remarked that when she was a child, people grew into their original faces. Whatever oddities they were born with formed what they looked like, year after year. Faces were hard-won and unique. But modern dentistry, nutrition, grooming—all the large and small interventions of medicine—made people look much more alike than they did sixty years ago.

In the 21st century, medicine is not just about the “correction” of significant impairments; personal perfectibility is as much the point of modern medicine as the curing of significant diseases. We view our bodies as lifetime fixer-upper projects.

Yet, it’s that very fluidity that opens profound questions about the identities our bodies express. Technologies such as radical cosmetic surgery, cyborgian interfaces, and gender reassignment procedures raise and complicate our expectations. Medicine offers new options if the inside of our bodies does not match the appearance of the outside. We live in a state of wild restlessness, trying to see and feel who we are. We see chimeras of possibility.

"At 54" Riva Lehrer 2012 self portrait

“At 54” by Riva Lehrer (2012).

My body was not normalized through all my surgeries; yet the original body I had would not have lived. It’s been changed so many times that I can’t even guess at what it would have been. My own mutability has given me a deep interest in the two-way relationship between one’s body and the course of a life.

I teach anatomy for artists at the School of the Art Institute and am a visiting artist in Medical Humanities at Northwestern University. My studio practice focuses on the intersection of the physical self and biography. I interview people in depth about the interweaving of their bodies and their stories. These interviews become narrative portraits, as I try to understand what can be known about a life in a single portrait image.

Join us as we explore the role of anatomy in identity formation through our celebration of the 500th anniversary of Vesalius’ birth. We’ve invited artists, performers, scholars, and historians to help us ask how our imaginations form our living flesh. Let’s all look in the mirror and ask, what are we really seeing, and what do we believe we see?

Some of the issues our speakers will explore include:

""Chase Joynt" by Riva Lehrer and Chase Joynt 2014

“”Chase Joynt” by Riva Lehrer and Chase Joynt (2014).

—How do we decide what is “lifesaving” and what is “elective” surgery when it comes to identity? Transgender performer Chase Joynt questions what it means to save a life, and how his dealings with the medical establishment led him to question such choices.

—How many of us were raised with the constant imprecation to stand up straight? Sander Gilman peers into the use of posture lessons in public schools to control the American body.

—Artist Steven Assael creates dramatic portraits of New Yorkers, from street performers to elderly eccentrics. His work shows us how identity travels from the inner self to the outer shell.  Assael is a long-time professor at New York’s School of Visual Arts, one of the last bastions of serious anatomical study in the U.S.

—Famed choreographer Heidi Latsky will discuss GIMP and how she creates dance for performers with a range of movements and morphologies. A performance and film excerpt bring us into the innovative strategies used by the GIMP collective.

—Many contemporary artists use anatomy in investigations of identity and formal exploration. Curator Ann Fox will present images from an international roster of artists. She will be joined by Taiwanese artist Sandie Yi, who will show work that deals with the intense difficulties of having a physically different body in China.

"Coloring Book" Riva Lehrer 2012

“Coloring Book” by Riva Lehrer (2012).

Graphic Medicine is a consortium of comics artists who explore medicine from the standpoint of doctor, nurse, patient and family member. The founders of Graphic Medicine, MK Czerwiec and Ian Williams, will discuss how the vulnerable body is rendered in comics form. Comics allow artists to move from the inside of the body to the outside in seamless transitions, to weave together objective perspectives and highly personal, subjective experiences.