Long before MRI, x-ray, or even photography, medical knowledge was disseminated through illustrations. However, even with all of the high-tech ways of imaging the body available today, medical illustrating is still a relevant and thriving profession. Artist Danny Quirk was kind enough to share some of his anatomical pieces as well as answer some of our questions about his background and creative process. Some of the following images are probably NSFW, so please continue with discretion.
Quirk attributes his artistic origins to the fact that he was quite shy as a child, unable to find a meaningful way to connect with his peers. Quite by surprise, he found his voice through his paintings. “The art introduced me to conversation, and those people I was so terrified to talk to would come up to me, and talk, and I guess I liked the shift in attention. I liked how no one cared what I had to say when I spoke, but everyone listened when I painted, to me, my art was like my alter ego,” he told IFLS in an email.
“As I grew older, and molted out of my insecurities, I began to see art as a platform for me to be heard. Years of shyness made me into a observer, and I had so much to say! Many of my observations and reflections shine through in my art, and I paint now to open others minds to new thoughts and ways of seeing, trying to get people to appreciate the things in life we're often so quick to dismiss.”
"Facial Dissection'' - made up for Ripley's Believe It or Not, and it depicts the 5 branches of Cranial Nerve VII- the Facial Nerve. (This piece took about 5 hours to complete.)
Science and anatomy attracted him early on. At age 6 or 7, he attended a book sale and found an anatomy book from the 1970s with full color illustrations of the structures of the body. Though he doesn’t have the book any longer, that was his first introduction to the beauty of anatomy, though his early art focused on things like birds and insects. Later, he received a renewed interest in anatomy through music. “Around 10th grade, I remembered turning on the radio, and hearing Tool's ''Schism'' for the first time,” he explained. “Instantly endorphins were released, and I just couldn't get enough of this band. I went out to buy the album 'Lateralus', and was introduced to the work of Alex Grey. It was some of the most beautiful, colorful, awe-inspiring work I'd ever seen. It very definitely made me want to drop everything and paint anatomy.”
This renewed inspiration from Alex Grey would carry with him throughout high school, inspiring him to focus his AP Art project on anatomy, which solidified his desire to become a medical illustrator. While in art school at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, Quirk created “Anatomical Self Dissections” for his senior project. A piece from that collection titled “Veronica-Piece of Mind” is one of his all-time favorite pieces, though he admits “If I'm doing it right, my favorite piece is the newest one. haha. Each piece for me is an opportunity to perfect my craft.”
Following art school, he teamed up with physician/illustrator Frank Scali in order to illustrate the myodural bridge, a small ligament in the neck that had been discovered by Scali. As Quirk couldn’t base his illustrations off of scientific literature, he accompanied Scali during dissections to see the structure firsthand. Through Scali, Quirk became acquainted with Dr. Kathy Dooley, who eventually wanted to commission him to make illustrations for the medical school anatomy classes she taught in New York City.
"Laminectomy"- this was a raw photo of the finish, as well as a detail. The next picture, shows how the body painting was turned into an education, contemporary medical piece . . . (this piece took about 9 hours to complete.)
Quirk realized that what he wanted most wasn’t money (even though a considerable amount had been offered), it was quality scientific instruction. Rather than accept financial payment for his illustrations, he bartered with Dooley and was able to trade 15 illustrations per semester in exchange for taking graduate-level anatomy classes including cadaver labs, allowing him to hone his talents and make his art more true to life.
However, his career really began to take off when his girlfriend needed a Halloween costume. “[S]he wanted to be painted up like a zombie,” he recalls. “I started painting on her face thinking nothing of it really, only to have the piece BLOW UP on the internet the next morning. Immediately a flashing neon light went off in our head, and I made up a series of pieces on her and other models, starting off as anatomical illustrations, but quickly evolving into full blown, medical illustrations.”
"Laminectomy Labeled"- This was the finished image, labeled and cleaned up, turning a body painting into a medical illustration without even breaking the skin!
So how does he create these mind-blowing creations? “I've tweaked the process over the past few months,” he notes, “but generally speaking, it consists of a base coat of latex, drawing with sharpie marker, painting with acrylic, lining with marker, and highlighting with acrylic. Now, my main objective is to expedite the process, and am happy to say, I can crank these things out it just a few short hours now!”
Eventually, Quirk hopes to create every region of the body. This July, he will be a guest speaker at the meeting of the Association of Medical Illustrators at Mayo Clinic. As he lacked certain prerequisites at the time, he was never accepted into a graduate medical illustrating program. He looks forward to seeing how his work is received by those trained professionals. Additionally, he and Dooley are entering into a new venture that brings medical illustration to the next level. "We're calling [the project] "Immaculate Dissection", which is in it's trial phase at the moment, but eventually will be a seminar series combining her talent for teaching, and my talent for painting. She will discuss regions of the body in the seminar, but instead of having power point lectures, all the imagery will be displayed on living / moving models, painted up by yours truly!"
Though the IFLS audience is more likely to appreciate the beauty of Quirk’s work and he is beginning to get quite a bit of recognition, not everyone is equally receptive. “In the 4 years since my undergrad graduation, roughly 3 out of every 7 publications associates my work with serial killers, about 5 out of every 7 label it as 'creepy', and while both of those EVENTUALLY get to the value/merit the work offers, the headlines are often misleading, and a total contradiction to my initial intent. It really shames me that we live in a world that only sees the body for its superficial beauty. The body is objectified through sexuality, and those (like myself) who see it as more than mere flesh are seen as creepy. It's so upsetting.”
''Painting Alex's Back"- An in work shot of me painting up the intrinsic muscles, and the DEEP intrinsics of the back. (That piece took almost 12 hrs to complete!)
“I was supposed to do a show out in Israel about a year ago, and last minute it got pulled. The show was going to be a political show, and it was going to use anatomy to deliver a peace message. It seems the 3 things that cause conflict among the living are race, religion, and politics. The show was going to play off the notion, that despite racial, religious, and political differences, biologically speaking, we're all the same underneath, and we should focus on seeing each other for our similarities versus our differences.”
Aside from missing the show, there were other ramifications he faced for his work. “The first piece I made for the series was entitled "Holy War" and when I posted it to Facebook, it got flagged, and REMOVED! My inbox was full of hate mail from people who ''didn't take too kindly'' to being compared to someone they were 'trained' to see as the enemy. Obviously, I'm not saying all Christians hate Muslims, or vice versa, but I was really dumb founded when the inbox lit up with such hate-- hate that was fueled by total ignorance.”
"Holy War”- This was the piece that cause a FIRE STORM on Facebook. It was pretty disgusting, and I lost a lot of faith in humanity.
“It was interesting, when I was taking Gross Anatomy, it was a fairly large class, so we had 4 cadavers split among some 28 kids. We had white cadavers, a black cadaver, and a Hispanic cadaver. Upon their death, no one could tell whether they were Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or liberal or conservative. We could still see the differences in race, but not for long. When we got to the actual dissecting, and the skin came off, it became very difficult to tell who was white, who was black, etc. We saw the body deduced to its structures, and without those 'labels' and 'color coding', we were in essence all the same. And it makes me wonder. If we were able to see the body and appreciate it for what it is, versus fear it, and be so quick to label it as 'creepy' would we in turn see each other more so as equals, or would there still be these feelings of hostility towards one another?”
[All images belong to to Danny Quirk and have been posted here with permission. If you’d like to see more of his artwork, follow him on Facebook or check out his website. Select pieces are also available to purchase as prints.]