Ever since at least Michelangelo’s David and the invention of contrapposto, a significant swath of artistic output has been focused on rendering the human form as realistically as possible. Fewer artists have been as concerned with what’s contained inside the human form—Lisa Nilsson is one of them.
Nilsson is an artist whose latest work is a series of anatomical cross-sections made out of paper and the gilded edges of old books. The finished pieces look like ornate 3-D fleur-de-lis clusters up close; zooming out, however, there’s no way to mistake the shape of bone, meat, and gristle. It’s difficult at first blush to say whether these pieces would be more at home in a museum or a medical class.
Before she was turned on to the idea of anatomical paper sculptures, Nilsson was making box assemblages that incorporated a mishmash of different techniques. One of those techniques was quilling, a form that involves rolled up strips of paper. After making a few small, abstract quilled pieces in an assemblage, Nilsson was inspired to stick with the medium.
"I enjoyed the way I could make small coiled units out of strips of paper, enclose and encircle them with an additional strip, and then squish and shape this new composite shape," the artist says. "Also, I could create a ‘cavity’ and squeeze coils into it until it was full."
Around this time, a friend directed Nilsson toward an image of a torso’s coronal section from an old French anatomy text. Something about it clicked immediately.
"I saw the shapes and textures I was experimenting with in my little abstract quilled pieces in this image and it became the point of departure for my first anatomical cross-section in paper."
At first, Nilsson had intended to include the finished piece in one of the assemblages she was making, but the scale was too big. She decided that it was begging to be a stand-alone. Soon she began researching more images of cross-sections and the work evolved from there.
Although these paper creations are a new venture for Nilsson, the subject is one she’s been interested in since she was old enough to clean and gut fish during childhood summer vacations. In fact, she even became a certified medical assistant in 2010 to become more familiar with the human body. It was perhaps only a matter of time before this fascination bled over into her art.
"I encountered the intersection of art and anatomy during life-drawing classes in high school and then again in art school. Some of the assemblages I used to make were influenced by my aesthetic attraction to anatomy," Nilsson says. "In cross-section, the body offers such rich and beautiful graphic opportunities—textures, colors, shapes, symmetry and asymmetry. I also like that in a rapidly changing age, anatomy remains relatively unchanged."
According to feedback from experts, Nilsson’s depiction of these relatively unchanged organs is quite accurate. The artist looks at several sources for each piece, including images from the Visible Human Project, medical illustrations, MRIs, etc. She also includes at least one labeled source in order to identify the major structures represented.
"I aim to make them correct enough not to annoy someone who knows what they are looking at, but as a sculptor I do not hold myself to the high standards held by medical illustrators."
The process for putting one of the paper pieces together starts with a print-out of that source image—sometimes a composite of several images, sometimes just one—and thumb tacking it to a piece of styrofoam insulation as a backing board. Next she cuts 1/4 strips of Japanese mulberry paper with a paper cutter.
"I typically start in some central location, often a bone, and build shapes onto shapes, gluing each to its neighbor and pinning them in place along the periphery of the pieces," the artist says. "It grows much in the way a puzzle comes together."
When the final piece is in place, Nilsson removes the pins and turns the entire piece over. The newly freed paper has a tendency to spread, which briefly threatens to distort the whole thing. In order to address the problem, she re-pins the outer edge, which re-establishes the desired overall shape and brushes the entire back of the piece with bookbinder’s glue. Finally, she makes a box-enclosure for the piece, which might take up to a few days.
As grueling and rote as the process would appear to be from Nilsson’s description, apparently it’s nothing that determination and some dissociative entertainment can’t assuage. "Running out of paper strips and having to stop and cut more is tedious, but steadily building the piece is satisfying and exciting in the way that puzzle-building is addictive and hard to quit once you’re engaged," she says. "I find many things in life tedious, but not making art. It is slow, but so deeply engaging. I deal with the slowness by listening to books on tape while I work. Heaven for me is being absorbed in an interesting piece and listening to a good book."
Nilsson’s latest work can be seen in the Teach the Body exhibit at Boston University, but have a look through some of her pieces in the slide show above.