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Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 47.2 (2004) 172-173

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Special Section :
"The Visible Skeleton Series": The Art of Laura Ferguson

Reaching Within

Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, University of Minnesota, 2450 Riverside Ave. S R200, Minneapolis, MN 55454.

As I watched a young teenage girl at the airport, I noticed that she had an underdeveloped thumb, though otherwise she was quite attractive and normal. She was adept at hiding her thumb from general public viewing. A learned behavior, learned perhaps from looks, frowns, questions. And I find myself wondering, did this thumb destroy her sense of self, of worth? Or did it make her stronger instead? Perhaps that knowledge—that the look can bring strength, even when the look is a frown—motivates Ferguson's portrayal of self with functional abnormality and anatomical ugliness made visible. The breakthrough of Ferguson's art is the depiction of the beauty of her parts and her person in spite of this horrible condition. It leads me to wonder what is beauty in a person.

I find myself wondering this from two perspectives: first simply as a person, and second as a spine surgeon. When I look at Ferguson's art simply as another person, I see external beauty, but there is also internal abnormality and ugliness. The images depict beautiful surfaces and curves and "normalcy," but the transparent nature of the skin reveals something sinister beneath the surface. What is this sinister thing? Is it simply abnormality or ugliness, and does it reach the threshold to make the whole person sinister or ugly? It seems not, and so I find myself wondering, then, whether this thing is her problem, or my problem. [End Page 172] Perhaps it bothers me because it looks like pain incarnate, perhaps because it could be inside of me, or someone I love.

Then, as I look at this work as a scoliosis specialist, I perceive this art differently: I see it is an excellent two-dimensional depiction of the three-dimensional deformity. It is accurate, precise, and compelling. As I look, my mind races through a classification scheme based on these core questions of my craft. Pain, no pain? (I see many adults with nearly normal spines by X-rays who have pain, so I cannot presume pain but I certainly suspect it. How could the arthritic facets not be painful?) Progression, no progression? In need of treatment now? Fixable? My mind devises the exposure, the bony resection, the placement of instrumentation, the realignment of the spine to achieve appropriate spinal balance in the coronal and sagittal planes. I operate with my eyes, knowing the curve offends me because it is not right, not what this person needs, not what she deserves. Now it seems a matter of injustice, something I can help right.

But even as my mind works through the surgery, the way the spine is depicted in the painting throws me off.There is skin on what I see as an X-ray, added surfaces that depict beauty, normal activity, normal motion. This moves me beyond the technical spinal analysis and to the analysis of the person. The questions change. How is she doing? Is she happy—happy with her function, happy with her life? Who cared for her previously? Did they know what they were doing? Did they do it well? Could I have done as well?When was she treated, and what technology was available?

And with this turn from the technical to the person herself, I find myself wondering again about what all this means to myself. Will this patient like me? Will she be willing to trust me with her spine and with her life, as I make my efforts to better her life?

In the end, I am left somewhat emotionally spent by the encounter with the art. I have felt the exhilaration of the technical challenge—the thrill of operating with my eyes and mind, seeing through flesh right to the bone. I find myself thinking of patients whom I have helped, who ask...


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pp. 172-173
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