The Quick, the Dead and the Anatomised: How a dissection drawing workshop morphed into an online event.

Dr Jac Saorsa, Artist-in-Residence//

Each year since 2015 I have been visiting the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification (CAHID) at the University of Dundee in Scotland, UK, where, in the spring semester, I give an illustrated talk about my work in the medical humanities for the students studying for the MSc Medical Art qualification. I also lead a drawing workshop, for the same group of students, in the dissection room. This post is about how that workshop, like many other events in this ‘time of COVID’, had to morph this year from being a fundamentally face-to-face session to one that was delivered online.

As a very intensive, year long course, the MSc Medical Art at Dundee has an international reputation for excellence and attracts graduate students from both the arts and the sciences. Throughout the year they benefit from opportunities to work on live briefs with a range of experts and learn to use a wide range of media from traditional illustration, to interactive 3D models, and animations. In the first semester students develop a strong foundation upon which to build their individual portfolio by studying anatomy through cadaveric dissection of Thiel embalmed cadavers and prosections, alongside observational drawing and anatomical illustration skills. They then move on to more specialised modules in the second semester, and this is also when I meet them, in my role as a visiting artist.

This year it was not possible to carry out the workshop in the actual dissection room due to COVID restrictions, so the course leader and I decided to run it as an online event using Microsoft Teams. But before I discuss how we managed to do this I will give a little context in terms of what the workshop is actually about, and its pedagogical purpose in terms of medical art. The workshop follows on from the talk about my own creative practice, which embraces both visual art and writing and focuses on themes of the illness experience, death, and our understandings and conceptualisations of mortality in general. The main thread running through both the talk and the workshop is that of the relation between emotional subjectivity, as it is expressed through creative practice, and scientific objectivity, specifically that of the medical gaze. The following extract is taken from the short talk that I give at the beginning of the workshop, as an introduction, alongside a short presentation of artworks that represent death and anatomical subjects from prehistoric through to contemporary examples.

The title of this workshop, The Quick, the Dead and the Anatomised, is taken from the following quote,
And he shall come with woundes rede
To deme the quick and the dead

John Myrke: Instructions for Parish Priests 1403

Which itself is translated as,
He ascended into heaven
And sitteth on the right hand of god
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead

Common Prayer Book

Although judgement is a difficult concept to quantify in terms of how we treat others, it was indeed a factor in how we began to learn about human anatomy, since most of the cadavers that were dissected in the beginning were those of convicted criminals. There has always been ambivalence around the practice of human dissection or ‘anatomising’, due in part to cultural and religious prohibitions, and there still is – even though the cadavers used now are mostly donated through various willed body programs. So, for this workshop I want to focus on the ambivalence and take you away from the objectivity that you must usually, by necessity, maintain in the way that you work with the material you illustrate, whether it be cadaveric or about disease or injury. It is true, of course, that medical artists require both anatomical and medical knowledge, alongside an objective and scientific approach to their subject matter that includes the technical and conceptual art skills necessary to render it accurately. But I am suggesting that these artists would also benefit from a deep understanding and acceptance of their emotional and more intuitive responses to the subject, in order to do it full justice. A very basic and indeed primeval requirement of being human is a profound level of engagement with the ‘other’, and emotionally this level of engagement derives from the basic human need to co-exist and share experience. I am talking about empathy here and subjectivity, and if you can get in touch with your own unique brand of these and put it into the work you do in this workshop, I think there’s a good chance that the experience may add something to the way you understand your work as a whole. You are all creative people working at the interface between art and medical science and in this workshop I am asking you to ‘cross the line’ for a few hours and favour the intuitive, artistic side of your practice. Remember, to respect cadavers is first to admit their irreducible humanity.

We decided to run the workshop over the usual three hours with the course leader hosting the session and myself and twelve students as participants. The prospect was a little daunting I have to admit, as I was unaccustomed to both the specific software, and to online teaching in general. Even so, I was determined to make it work because, since I first presented the workshop and we have been developing and improving it through listening to student feedback, it has become an important part of the MSc course as a whole. We didn’t want this year’s students to miss out.
Given the nature of the workshop itself, I struggled at first with how I could, in such a ‘detached’ way, make it work as successfully as in previous years. There were practical issues such as the subject matter for the students to actually draw from, and how I could create a online alternative to my running around the dissection room for three hours, chatting with each student and commenting on individual drawings. When teaching drawing, I believe that the spontaneity of the moment, the complexity of the interaction between tutor and student over a piece of work as it develops is an important factor. In addition, this particular workshop is designed to invoke emotional responses that are often deeper than can be described in a pencil line or in a watercolour brushstroke and with my experience as a teacher, and as a trained counsellor, I am confident about my ability to manage such an intensive workshop, face to face. Online was an unknown quantity.
Practical issues about subject matter were easily overcome. During my own dissection practice over the years I have accumulated a lot of photographic images of cadaveric material as part of my research, and 3d scans of anatomical dissection are also available for CAHID students to access through their university accounts. We decided to use these resources as references for the students to draw from.

We set the timings for the session in advance: an initial twenty minute presentation followed two forty-five minute sessions with a short break in between, and a final session of around twenty minutes to close. For the forty-five minute sessions we split the group of twelve students into individual breakout rooms where they could work on their drawings, using traditional media, based on the images on their individual screens. During this time I ‘visited’ each student in their room to chat about their work and how they were feeling about the workshop in general. This arrangement seemed to work very well and from my perspective there were only two small problems. One was my inability to see the whole group at any one time so that I could ‘keep an eye’ and make sure everyone was OK, and the second was the long wait for the students who were last on the list for my ‘visit’. Despite this, all of the students were very engaged with the process and the resulting artwork was impressively ‘atypical’ of what might be expected of medical art.

All drawings by Lucy Southwell cargocollective.com/imbriummare 

In the group discussion at the end of the session, the conversation seemed primarily about the success of the workshop in terms of its three fundamental aims (listed below), none of which are necessarily about producing beautiful artwork, but all of which are about allowing the student to experience and experiment with his/her unique, personal and individual response to the subject matter and to the materials they were working with.

  • to give free run to the intuitive side of your creativity
  • to focus on your emotional and empathic response to the material
  • to prioritise subjectivity over objectivity

We also discussed the pros and cons of the online platform, and it was gratifying that although students missed the obvious advantage of actually being in the real dissection room, the cons were fairly negligible . In fact, running the workshop in this way did highlight some unexpectedly positive aspects, the most compelling being the one-to-one nature of my interactions with the students. Many students commented that in the privacy of their breakout rooms they found it easier to acknowledge and respond to their subjective, emotional reactions to the task, as well as to communicate them through our conversations together. Consequently, there were some timing issues as I spent far longer in conversation with each student than expected, but I did manage to get to see all of them by the end of the session. Overall the students’ high level of engagement allowed for a greater depth of understanding – on both sides! – than perhaps is the case when they are interacting ‘publicly’ in the dissection room, albeit only alongside his/her classmates, where they may feel more reticent about acknowledging deeper feelings. Some students also commented that the time alone, drawing by themselves in their breakout rooms, led to some profound insights into the nature of medical art and their individual process.

I’ve noticed many medical artists have, most likely, become desensitised to the contents of their profession, and it leads to a severe lack of self awareness and what I would call ‘social understandings’, in terms of a morbid fascination with things deemed ‘unnatural.’

Student comment

In a year where students’ experience of university education in general has been so radically different to what they might have expected, and while present circumstances have often been detrimental to their studies, this one small event in Dundee provides, I hope, evidence that online working can work very well when there is a willingness to engage and adapt. Indeed, based on the feedback from this year, we are discussing the merits of a ‘follow-up’ session in future presentations of The Quick, the Dead and the Anatomised, where students have to chance to speak individually and privately about their experience.

We loved meeting and chatting to you also there was still a buzz about it in our group chat. We have a good bunch this year and very supportive of each other. I think it was a good process… not only the session but the one on one during which was amazing and meant a great deal to all of us.

Student feedback

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