In 2011, I was starting to plan for an exhibit at the Cafritz Arts Center in Maryland, based around the theme of cells. I knew that I didn’t want to just paint a bunch of various cells – I wanted to use them to express some thoughts about how humans relate to each other.
In my painting From the Cells to the Stars, I told the story of how my friend Cathy’s bone marrow went bad and stopped producing healthy blood cells. Her illness linked her to Carl Sagan, who had the same disease, Myelodysplastic Syndrome, or MDS. And as Sagan famously told us, we are all made of star stuff, so we are all connected in that cosmic way. (I told this story in greater detail here)
This piece, Portrait of a Human, explores that theme of connection from another angle. A lot of art focuses on individuality and personal identity, emphasizing the differences between people. I wanted to make something that used science to get across the idea of our commonality, how humans, while each unique, are at the same time essentially the same. I did this by painting a series of normal human cells.
In my Portrait of a Human, each of the 16 panels depicts a normal type of cell found in the human body – blood, bone, brain, eye, hair, skin and muscle cells, to name a few. Only one panel has two cell types – the egg and sperm, which were meeting at the time. I consider this the “baby picture” of my emblematic human. I could extend this portrait, adding many more cell types. This human could use some kidneys and a digestive system, in particular. I would also love to paint a similar piece of a human microbiome, but that might fill several galleries.
This picture is of you. Or me. Or your neighbor, or a guy from Uzbekistan that you’ve never met. If you are a generally healthy human being, this is what your cells look like, except that yours are much less colorful. I love that this piece is a self-portrait, as well as a picture of everyone I know, and millions of others that I don’t. It’s a simple trick of viewpoint: take a step back and see humans as a species, one of many sharing the planet. Or take a step closer and see the cellular characteristics that unite us. Either way, it’s a new look at you.
You can see lots more of my work here.