Studio Visit with Cindy Stelmackowich: Fragility, beauty, and trauma in the human body.

Cindy Stelmackowich works in sculpture, installation and digital photography, primarily investigating the relationship between art, science and our bodies.

Over the past decade she has incorporated into her art practice historical anatomical images, medical books and laboratory equipment, as well as materials linked to the body, such as hair.

In sculptural work, old medical textbooks have been reworked and integrated into vintage medical equipment and placed in laboratory-themed installations.

Her ambition is to create new conversations in the boundaries between art and science that asks new questions about the body and its materiality, including its cultural histories and aesthetic presentations.

Cindy Stelmackowich discussed her work with SCINQ Arts.

Wrapped and Waxed (CREDIT: Cindy Stelmakowich)

Can we start with some background? How did you get to be a working artist?

I tend to think and act creatively and visually. I studied both visual art and multiple sciences at the University in Saskatchewan, completed a MA in Ottawa, and did a PhD in art history and theory at Binghamton (New York). My twin interests in both art and science, but specifically their interconnections, remains a passion for me today however complex my theoretical or material interests in the body become.

When did you decide to bring art and science together?

In both high school and undergraduate studies at university I refused to just stay within one established discipline and found myself instead in interdisciplinary studies and cross-connected spaces.

Even at the PhD level I continued to question the histories and interconnections of art and science – disciplines that are ultimately not as far apart as they might seem. In 2010 I completed a dissertation on the visual cultures of medical illustration. This intense inquiry allowed my art to grow, as I ask questions in my art practice that come out of historical scholarship.

I often find myself pondering when a new mode of inquiry strikes me if it is best suited for an academic article, an art installation, or a seminar course. 

Can you discuss your collection of old medical books? What made you start? How have the books informed the aesthetics of your work?

I started collecting medical books at the time of my archival studies for the PhD. Once I knew this was going to be a long and sustained interest, I started to conduct research in medical libraries and rare book rooms around North America and Europe.

I also went to book fairs, used bookstores, and paid attention to auctions. Some of these books were used directly for my dissertation research, others were bought for pure joy and fascination. As these books started to come into my art studio, I started to see them as not just full of historical data and a product of cultural values, but also as a material source for new artistic inquiries.

I began to think of them as a sculptural material that could be manipulated and changed according to creative thoughts and pursuits. These reworked medical textbooks that transformed the physical material and matter of obsolete medical knowledge became integrated into laboratory-themed art installations.

Disaster Series – Untitled. (CREDIT: Cindy Stelmakowich)

In your Disaster series, you implanted images of physical disasters inside different parts of the body. On one very straightforward level it can be a metaphor for disease. Can you discuss the series?

During my research I discovered that 19th-century illustrations of the anatomical body were presented as exclusively white, male (unless showing female reproductive organs, or pregnancy) and supposedly void of any cultural or social influences and effects. It remained a struggle to understand these anatomized figures as only a scientific model – we see them aesthetically and emotionally too.

I decided to digitally layer images of traumas, riots, and natural disasters (such as floods and fires that took place over this same period) deep onto and inside of these normative mannequins; shipwrecks swirl inside the cranium, great fires burn in the chest regions, distressing volcanoes erupt in the lungs, and protesting riots swirls inside the head.

For me it was as attempt to show how memories are part of the body and that disasters and traumas influence how our thoughts and our bodies function. In other words, that the human body is not just a physiological entity but is also an emotional one that responds and adapts to traumas and losses.

To these ends then, my Disaster series were a metaphor for a ‘dis-easing’ an unraveling of sorts in that they give contemplative space for the central role that disaster plays in the development of Western society and the construction of identity. A number of my artworks and series have centered on the human body as a complex site that embraces fragility, mortality, beauty and memory all at once. Conjoining the sentimental and the scientific is a strategy I have deployed in a number of my digital print series. 

Disaster Series – Untitled. (CREDIT: Cindy Stelmakowich)
Disaster Series – Untitled. (CREDIT: Cindy Stelmakowich)

In Biospecimens you introduce the notion of “splicing, cutting, isolating, distilling, and preserving.” While they are acts normally associated with science, they can also be applied to the creative artist’s process. Can you discuss them?

My Biospecimens re-form the pages of old medical textbooks into objects referencing sections of the interior of the human body. Looking like layers of flesh, the colored edge pages from these old books refer to layers of structural organization of the body such as tissues, muscles, organs, fat and bone. Layering and stacking, then placing inside of laboratory glassware for display and presentation.

My creative process thereby mimics that of the anatomist in the laboratory and in the medical museum. Biospecimens thereby appear as a taxonomy of human body parts – allegories of human flesh. They represent novel types of biomedical specimens and when placed in larger biomedical vitrines they reference the fate of human flesh in the scientific world order.

Biospecimens Series – Untitled. (CREDIT: Cindy Stelmakowich)
Biospecimens Series – Herniated. (CREDIT: Cindy Stelmakowich)
Muscle, Flesh, and Bone. (CREDIT: Cindy Stelmakowich)

The book plays a major role in your work, both as an object and an idea. It often seems to serve as a test subject that can serve as substrate and product simultaneously. You dissect it, preserve it, present it, and repurpose it. Can you discuss what it represents in your work?

Yes, that is a good observation as medical books serve multiple purposes to a variety of differing ends for me. On one level they allow for mental reflection and emotional/ethical contemplation about scientific methods and applications. From them I can ask new sets of questions about medical science; its histories, aesthetics, methods and knowledge structures. On another level, they allow me to physically transform obsolete medical knowledge into something new. Considering the cultural and material history of anatomy and medicine, and blending these with sculptures, is a rich territory for my art practice. My goal is to create new conversations in contemporary art and medical science.

From your experience, what does art offer science and vice versa?

I think an interdisciplinary exploration of art-science posits a new analytical vernacular in enabling new ways of seeing, understanding, and thinking critically about the world. It inspires imaginative reconfigurations for both science and for contemporary art.

Finally, what is next for you?

I am continuing to work as an artist, academic and curator. My last curatorial project was at the Canadian Museum of Nature (Ottawa) where I curated an extensive exhibition on Canadian women scientists. I have an installation of sculptures planned in Western Canada in 2021, as well as a body-based exhibition entitled “Stacks and Queues” at the City Hall Gallery in my hometown of Ottawa. The scientific measurement of health and disease remains of interest to me, especially in this current period of living through a global pandemic.

For more of Cindy Stelmackowich’s work, visit her website.

QUESTIONER: Brice Marsters

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