By Joe Ferguson
I grew up on second-hand editions of The Golden Books. My mother, with a burgeoning bibliophile on her hands, scavenged rummage sales for anything she thought I might find interesting. I remember the day she brought home The Golden Book of Science for Boys and Girls. It may be lost on younger readers, but this book had two things that fascinated me--artistic illustrations and in color. I read that book once, but I looked at it for years, flipping the pages, staring at the pictures of this amazing, foreign world called Science.
I also spent a significant amount of time in the public library, sneaking my way past the librarians to the grown-ups section to see the real science books. Real science books, however, were a disappointment. Instead of full-color, artistically-rendered images that instilled awe and wonder, I found dry black-and-white illustrations that reduced fascinating concepts to engineering blueprints and cryptic diagrams. For a picture of a muscle cell, for instance, I found alternating rectangles of black and white with labeled sections of bands and zones. It was explanatory, yes, but missing were the artistic effects of motion and tension that had inspired me to seek out these books.
You can imagine my excitement when I saw a show by artist Mei-ling Humphrey of embroidered anatomical illustrations, turning what most people consider dry, academic information into fine art.
On the wall hung several examples of anatomical illustrations, colorful, fully accurate and detailed. As I looked closer, I could see each tiny stitch necessary to produce the subtle colors and shading. Mei-ling doesn’t work exclusively in the SciArt genre, but the attention she gave these works was very satisfying.
I asked Mei-ling what had inspired her to use anatomical illustrations. She told me, “When I was conceptualizing the pieces I was responding to a few things, but all within the idea of value: how are value systems made, who decides what is valuable, and on what grounds? I chose anatomical illustrations to both explore ideas of science as trust/truth and to relate the pieces to the body.”
“Why Science?” I asked. She stated, “I also chose scientific imagery to comment on how certain value systems are accepted and rarely challenged - for example, science is accepted as having authority. True, the scientific process was conceived to critically question what we know, but often these ideals are, in the everyday, secondary to the power inherent in knowing. For example, time is often considered natural, but is in fact a social construct, and is not as static and universal as is usually assumed.”
I was interested in the use of embroidery. Not only is this medium not associated with hard science, but it is often thought of as craft, not fine art. She responded, “I chose embroidery because of the history of it being seen as women's work, and therefore devalued as art, and is usually classed as craft. The decision to present them as paintings--framed, matted--was to contrast embroidery to what is considered high art. Why is one labour thought of as higher than the other?”
Reflecting on her work, I realized I hadn’t been that thrilled since I first saw the anatomical illustrations of Frank Netter or, more recently, those of Frédéric Delavier. I don’t know if Mei-ling has ever seen The Golden Book of Science for Boys and Girls, but she is obviously inspired by science illustrations, and any time science gets this kind of attention and consideration, I’m happy.
View more of Mei-ling Humphrey’s work here.