Art and science meet in the work of artist-academic Cindy Stelmackowich. Contrasts abound as she churns up beauty from the abject. The resulting works show that attraction and repulsion can coexist. A look inside the atelier with journalist Paul Gessell and photographer Rémi Thériault.
Cindy’s little shop of horrors is down a hall through a rabbit warren of artists’ studios in an old Ottawa bakery. The building—now called Enriched Bread Artists—is something of a laboratory for creative minds. Among them is an anatomically obsessed artist, properly titled Dr. Cindy Stelmackowich, during her day job as a contract instructor at Carleton University.
Just past the entrance to Stelmackowich’s studio there is, to the right, an assortment of human hair pieces called domes. Nearby is an old physician’s examining table that has surely been party to more indelicate secrets than a church confessional. Another wall displays rows of antique black mourning lace that fashion-conscious Victorian ladies used to adorn their widow’s weeds. Further into the room are photographic blows-ups of squirming little creatures known as cholera bacteria. The back wall reveals an image of a handsome young man, his eyes closed, his chest open, his organs tumbling into a ruby-red glass bowl below. Despite the gore, the man looks angelic, serene, even seductive. That’s a Stelmackowich trademark: conjuring beauty from unexpected places. Turns out, the little shop of horrors is actually a beauty shop.
Among the studio’s many surprises, none is greater than the dissection table covered with gleaming white ceramic tile in the middle of the room. It’s a replica that Stelmackowich, MA/95, had built to match some she saw in photographs from Germany’s Nazi era. She wants to allude both directly and indirectly to that period and to “practices related to that history” in an art show someday. Why? Because that was a poignant period in medical science. “No matter how I use the table in my art, it will refer to science as having had negative resonance,” she says.
Stelmackowich loves to bring new life to controversial or creepy old things, so we are simultaneously curiously attracted and repulsed. It forces questions.
Until the dissection table goes on public display, Stelmackowich is using it as a work surface. “I like the clinical look,” she says. On this particular day, an elaborate Victorian-era hair wreath rests on the table. Human hair is twirled to form roses, lilies and other flowers. Stelmackowich added dozens of small lengths of wiggly wires, each topped with a button that looks like an eye. “I thought it would be interesting to have the wreaths look back at you,” Stelmackowich says. Of course. Why have a hair wreath just sit there?
“She really enjoys that push-pull,” says Judith Parker, acting curator of Ottawa’s Bytown Museum, where Stelmackowich did a residency earlier this year and where she has a solo show on now and continuing until January 8, 2012. The exhibit, called Dearly Departed, looks at the visual and written language of 19th-century mourning.
The show is one of many commitments crowding Stelmackowich’s calendar. She is teaching a Carleton course on feminism and gender issues in art while also doing research for the Canadian Museum of Science and Technology in Ottawa for a forthcoming exhibit on medicine and the five senses. Next spring, Stelmackowich will do a post-doctoral fellowship at the New York Academy of Medicine, an honour normally bestowed upon doctors and scientists, rather than artists. The fellowship will be followed by the 2012 publication of Bodies of Knowledge: Nineteenth Century Anatomical Atlases, 1800-1860, which incorporates much of her doctoral thesis from Binghamton State University of New York.
Stelmackowich’s academic career and art practice have been a juxtaposition of science, medicine and art. She loves nothing more than to find an arresting anatomical drawing from an old atlas, photograph it, enlarge it and then Photoshop other objects into the picture. The final work is a startlingly life-sized digital print collage that challenges the viewer to look at the human body in new ways. The inside, with its trellises of veins and nerves, can be just as beautiful as a painting of a voluptuous woman in her bath.
Stelmackowich grew up in Melville, a small city in eastern Saskatchewan, the daughter of a teacher and a baker. It’s one of life’s fine coincidences that the daughter who spent years helping her dad bake bread is now following her creative impulses in an old bakery.
In school, Stelmackowich was equally enthralled by art and science, so she studied both for the first few years of her undergraduate degree at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. By third year, she had decided against spending her life in a laboratory and pursued a double major in fine arts and art history. Her electives included courses in cell anatomy and biochemistry, to keep up that side of her interests. In 1991, Stelmackowich came to Carleton to complete her MA. The doctorate from Binghamton came in 2010.
It was in the late 1990s that Stelmackowich started creating medically themed art in earnest. Laboratory beakers, test tubes and other scientific equipment were turned into installations and sculptures. Most successful were the images harvested from old medical texts and then reworked the way a sculptor moulds clay.
The Los Angeles Times was definitely impressed with Stelmackowich’s exhibition at the Kristi Engle Gallery in that city in 2008. The review described the work as “bizarre, haunting and beautiful.” And, the reviewer added, sexually charged.
“One stunning example is The Wreck of the Underley off the Isle of Wight, England—1866 in which the bow of the careening ship slices into the body of a whale,” wrote reviewer Sharon Mizota. “This tableau is embedded in the abdomen of a female torso whose flayed skin frames the scene like petals or skeins of spun candy. It’s an image of penetration on at least three levels: the ship’s collision with the whale, the dissection itself and the suggestive placement of the phallic ship inside a woman’s body.”
Stelmackowich was delighted with the Los Angeles rave. She was also delighted last spring when the National Arts Centre staged the multidisciplinary arts festival in Ottawa called Prairie Scene, which saw her work exhibited alongside that of one of her idols, Winnipeg’s Diana Thorneycroft, whose art also aestheticizes the body in startling ways.
Evolving cultural attitudes toward the body, especially the bodies of women, infuse Stelmackowich’s work in the studio and the classroom. In the first few lessons, of her fall course, Stelmackowich revisits feminist debates of the 1960s, an often-unknown era for 20-year-old students. She explains why women rebelled and how the rebellion was linked to liberation movements for gays and racial minorities. Then the class moves into the study of feminist artists such as Judy Chicago, the American creator of The Dinner Party, a much-debated installation honouring 39 women from history.
Another course she has taught is called Envisioning the Body: Between Arts and Science, on how art about the body intersects with science. Many science majors are attracted to the art history class. They suddenly become enthralled with the visual culture of biology or medicine.
Stelmackowich has lectured at Carleton since 2003. “She is incredibly friendly and accessible and approachable,” says Brian Foss, an art historian and director for the School for Studies in Art and Culture. “She is able to visualize images with the kind of immediacy and sensuality that isn’t distant, that students rightly find extremely engaging.”
Foss sees Stelmackowich’s work as evolving from the Renaissance, when artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo physically explored the inner workings of the body in order to give more life to their images of its exterior.
Stelmackowich enjoys leading student debate on the trend of exhibiting real corpses that have been plasticized and placed in poses borrowed from art history or the world of sports. An example is the physician and anatomist Gunther von Hagens’ globe-trotting Body Worlds, public anatomical exhibitions of donated human bodies to educate the public about health and anatomy. Stelmackowich compares such shows to 16th-century public dissections by the likes of Belgian anatomist Andreas Vesalius. It was not until the late 18th century that cadaver dissection disappeared behind the closed door of the hospital, Stelmackowich explains, noting that in some parts of Europe, the exhibition of body parts remained an attraction at travelling fairs as late as the early 20th century
Exhibitions such as Body Worlds are considered exploitative and ghoulish in some quarters. So what about Stelmackowich’s reworking of old anatomical drawings? Are they ghoulish? Andrew Morrow says no. Morrow, a former colleague at Enriched Bread Artists, paints sexually explicit, apocalyptic scenes that also conjure up beauty from unexpected places. The two artists have the same dealer. “I find the work quite academic and strongly motivated by a collector’s impulse,” says Morrow. “I actually find it quite pristine and cold.”
Stelmackowich is more concerned with creating objects of beauty than of fright—she is more beautician than vampire. If viewers appreciate the aesthetics of her work, she is content, but she is delighted if people examine the issues raised by the layers of her work.
Pointing to the hair wreath on the dissection table, Stelmackowich declares: “I want to challenge myself and take this wreath somewhere else. It’s already strange. How can I make it surreal? How can I be fair to these aesthetics but, at the same time, place them somewhere where they can go up in all these conversations? To me, that’s the role of the artist. That’s also the role of the academic.”