Jennifer McCormick

Artist Profile - Works of art created from patients' X-rays

By Cathy Norcross Watts in Relish of the Winston-Salem Journal
Published: March 1, 2012

In her work as a medical illustrator, Jennifer McCormick uses X-rays to document injuries and illness. But in her mixed-media art she uses those same X-rays to create images of hope and healing.

Since 2002, McCormick, 41, has operated Art for Law and Medicine. She takes a hefty stack of files as well as a fistful of compact discs and studies each case to make two-dimensional, medical-demonstrative exhibits for malpractice and personal injury court cases. Her work is used by plaintiffs and defendants. Each detail of her medical illustrations comes from the client's medical records. The images are digital illustrations that she paints on a Wacom tablet. Instead of generic victims, she studies photographs before painting her portraits of real people, with their real injuries.

"Each one is different, depending on the injury or the complexity of the surgery," McCormick said. "My medical art is deadline driven, so sometimes I'll work on it for days and nights straight through to the time I submit the proof."

"It's very graphic," she said. "Their stories are sacred. You not only think about the trial details, you learn their stories and what happened to them when they came home from the hospital and what they can expect for their futures. Often that can be extremely sad."

After working with these images for 10 years, she sat down with an old set of X-rays to try something different. In her first mixed-media piece, "Good Intent," she used the mammogram of a woman who died because her breast cancer was not diagnosed in time. On the mammogram, McCormick painted dainty doves carrying pink ribbons that she thinks of as "a million little prayers."

"It's also hopeful for those who see this," McCormick said, especially for someone with breast cancer.

She graduated from Johns Hopkins in 1994 with a degree in medical and biological llustration. McCormick and her husband, who is a physical therapist, have lived in Winston-Salem for six years. Her work will be displayed Friday at the Piedmont Craftsmen's new members show.  She sells her work from her website, www.mindbodymedicalart.com.

"Jennifer McCormick's work represents the range and complexity an artist will attain to express a vision or idea," said B. Jane Doub, president and chief executive of Piedmont Craftsmen.

"At first, the viewer looks at the beauty and design of the artwork. Then you begin to look for the hidden X-rays. The discovery is infectious, and you begin to study each piece further."

For her art, McCormick scans the X-ray images onto German lithographic paper, and the smoky scenes become the backgrounds for cardinals, herons, hummingbirds and robin eggs. Her art is mixed-media and incorporates X-rays, chalk, bits of cut paper, sometimes colored pencil and gouache, which is similar to watercolor and leaves a chalky texture.

"There's nothing like these traditional materials," McCormick said.

Although McCormick knows the stories of each of her medical illustrations, in her art, the mammograms, X-rays, CTs, MRIs, PET scans and angiograms are anonymous. "I do this with loving intentions," she said. "I'm careful."

"My work transforms real images of injury into new scenes of healing, hope, acceptance or even a new outcome," McCormick wrote on her artist profile on the Piedmont Craftsmen website. "The films I use are submitted to me in my work as a medical illustrator and as such are part of a patient's medical history in order to create medically accurate images. But my fine artwork is the opposite: I put aside clinical facts so the once diagnostic images become emotional Rorschach splotch tests. They are my meditations on a patient's recovery."

Sometimes her art reflects the story the scan represents, and other times she seeks a different outcome.

For example, in one of her mixed-media pieces, a flock of hummingbirds flies atop a background comprised of a scanned chest X-ray of an emergency-room trauma case. A hummingbird's heart beats 400 times a minute, McCormick said, and the image reflects the energy in the emergency room as doctors try to save a patient.

In another piece, a blue heron sits on a scan of a superior mesenteric artery, which seems to form a perfect tree limb in a foggy scene.

The scan tells the story of a client who was misdiagnosed, and doctors who missed a clot. In her work, the heron has caught a fish.

She has painted two cardinals on a heart scan in "Union," and in "Second Wind" a sparrow perches on a foot X-ray.

People come up to her and tell her all sorts of personal stories about how her art affects them. Creating art from tragedy revives her. "It helps my soul," she said. She's recently been asked by patients to take their X-rays and to do something with them, and she considers that an honor.

When she creates art from the scans, she's trying to do "something with the sadness."

"That's your soul working when you make something beautiful from tragedy," McCormick said.

Kathy Norcross Watts writes about artists of all stripes — visual, musical, literary and more — weekly in relish. Send your story ideas to winterberrybooks@bellsouth.net.

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