In 2016, the National Library of Medicine (NLM) fielded a reference request seeking high resolution images of an anatomical atlas from our Historical Anatomies website for use as reference material in a mosaic art project. Recently, the artist, Rachael Que Vargas, (formerly John T. Unger) has been back in touch, requesting some additional images. In recognition of American Artist Appreciation Month, Circulating Now interviewed her about how the project got started, her techniques, and what her study of the images has revealed.
Circulating Now: Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from? What do you do? What is your typical workday like?
I was raised a latchkey kid, with a knife, matches, field guides and a thousand acres to roam. I was fascinated by the variety of natural systems and how they work and interact. I preferred observation and experimentation to asking adults and taking them at their word. Figuring it out myself was more fun and more rewarding. This feral, DIY approach to learning and working is still the core of my art practice.
The woods were full of materials to make things from— wood, stone, clay and bone. My grandfather’s shed had metals, lumber and tools. My family had a lot of woodworkers, including an uncle who built a 55-foot replica of a Revolutionary War sloop that still sails today. I preferred materials like stone and steel that weren’t subject to distortion in humidity.
I’m nocturnal by nature so typically I get up at noon and do the art that pays the bills before dinner. I spend the evening with my wife and then work till dawn on the art I make for myself. Large scale projects like these mosaics are better suited to third shift hours; there are fewer distractions at night and I can give them my full attention and concentration.
CN: You’re halfway through this major project “Anatomy Set in Stone.” Tell us a little about how you got started.
RV: In 2005 I did an anatomical mosaic as a commission for a massage therapist. I was inspired by the fact that minerals and stone dug from the body of the Earth come in exactly the right colors to portray the interior of the human body. One of my core practices as an artist is to match the material to the meaning in my work. That first mosaic was made with quite traditional techniques and was successful, but I had a vision I couldn’t shake of a larger, more intricate and realistic version.
CN: The models you selected for the project are plates from the NLM’s copy of Bartolomeo Eustachi’s 1783 anatomical atlas. What drew you to his work?
RV: When I made the first anatomical mosaic I needed a good reference image so I googled and found Historical Anatomies. Ten years later when I decided to make the series, I reached out to NLM and worked with Michael North who was very helpful in providing access to the high-resolution digital files I needed to print the source images life size.
I chose Eustachi’s work primarily because it was one of the only historic anatomies in color— I later discovered that the copy of his anatomy at NLM may be the only one that is colorized! The poses are gorgeous and dynamic and there are few errors compared to other early anatomies. My goal was to reproduce the drawings as closely as possible but to also make them as accurate as possible. I generally root for the underdog and I thought Eustachi, who was a contemporary of Vesalius, deserves to get a little more attention.
CN: I understand you’ve acquired a copy of Tabulae Anatomicae of your own!
RV: I did get a copy, a second edition, published by Laurent et Thomas Pagliarini, 1728! I wanted one to accompany the mosaics when they’re on display. After 600 hours per mosaic for 6 years it was really nice to hold the book in my hands as I’ve never been to NLM to see the book I worked from. Now that I’m doing some of the more complicated plates, I’m finding it’s helpful to have the non-colored version to follow the lines and the hatching. It’s good to have both.
CN: The original illustrations in NLM’s collection are about 18 inches high, why did you decide to make your mosaic figures life size? What challenges did that entail?
RV: I want people to see themselves mirrored in the mosaic, so figures 6 foot high feels right to me. I mocked up pieces with white backgrounds, like the page, but I found that the black pops much better. The frames are steel with a rust patina. I chose it partly for the strength and the finish which will self-heal if it gets scratched, what I didn’t anticipate is the way it echoes the color of the muscles. Sometimes as an artist you get lucky like that.
The size is ultimately determined by the constraints of both material and technique. “Anatomy Set in Stone” was conceived as a touring exhibition. I couldn’t have made them larger without seams in the 4×8 sheets of backer board which would have made them too fragile to travel. They also couldn’t be any smaller without sacrificing a great deal of detail—even at this scale some individual bits of stone are no larger than 1×1 millimeter. The scale was ultimately decided not by height but by the width of the images that had arms held out. At this scale the finished pieces weigh between 300 and 350 pounds. They’re difficult to move but very strong—one did fall 4 feet from the work table but it was completely undamaged!
I had to invent a machine to flip the mosaics upside down to install them into the frames. Normally, a large mosaic is taped, then cut into manageable pieces to move it for installation but because these are so intricately interleaved that wasn’t possible. I apply the mortar with the mosaic upside down, then flip it again to do the grout.
The project has overtaken 3 rooms of the house, and I’ve installed industrial LED lights with 30,000 lumens above each work table—like working under the sun at noon—for my work at night.
CN: Eustachi’s illustrations are expressive, your renderings in stone are impressively dynamic. Would you explain about the materials and techniques you use to achieve this?
RV: If you know you can do something, why do it, right? I knew the colors would work, but I had no idea whether I would be able to achieve enough detail to pull it off. That curiosity drove me so, I bought a few tons of stone and a few different kinds of saws and got started. Even though I didn’t know going in if the project would work, I had to buy the bulk of the stone upfront. Natural stone varies, and you can’t count on an exact match from the same store or quarry at a later date. Other materials I count on were discontinued or changed during the project—the tile spacers I use in the backgrounds and the 4×8 backboard. I found a backboard that is lighter and better, but had to scour Ebay for the tile spacers.
For each mosaic, I print the image full size and lay the stone over them. It stays loose until installation so I can edit areas I’m not satisfied with. I started with the three simplest images which detail the muscles. The technique on those was fairly traditional except for using long strips of stone instead of small pre-cut square tile. All I needed was the wet saw to cut the stone in strips and tile nippers to nip them to length.
When I got to the more complicated images like the nerves and circulatory system, I needed to be able to make more complex shapes and added lapidary tools to the bench—a flat lap wheel, a spindle grinder and finally a diamond band saw. The band saw allows so much more detail that I use it on almost every piece I shape now. That precision and the thrill of pushing the medium is what keeps me going, constantly learning and improving and inventing new techniques to address the detail in the images.
Using striated stone was a breakthrough on the detail. The engravings in the book use a lot of crosshatching for shading and it’s far too fine to cut the stone thin enough to match. By using striated limestone and onyx, I was able to match it closely. When I work, I’m very close to the drawing so I didn’t at first realize how well that technique would work from a distance when the piece is finished.
CN: This is an enormous undertaking entailing an intense focus on human anatomy. What do you think about as you render these physical bodies in such detail?
RV: Literally every piece cut is a new challenge so you don’t get bored. Ninety percent of what makes this work is really looking closely at the drawing, at the art, and thinking about how to make that work in another medium. You also have to trust yourself and trust the drawing. The first ribcage I did looked completely wrong to me every day, right up till it was finished. But the completed piece is so 3D it looks like you could reach your hand inside it.
Sometimes the drawings seem a little wrong, inaccurate—on one of them, the collarbone looked broken where it’s crossed by a nerve. It bothered me but I followed the drawing closely anyway. When it was completed, I saw that from a certain perspective it looks correct. So, I can tell hundreds of years later that this is where the artist was standing in relation to the cadaver when they drew it. The book is too small to be able to get that perspective and discover that information. For 500 hundred years that has looked wrong, but it turns out it isn’t. It makes you wonder what else can be discovered.
And sometimes, working with the material, I wonder, why does stone come in the same colors as organic tissue? My guess is that since all are pigments based on minerals, it’s the iron in the blood and the stone—similar chemical composition. I’ve also noticed that white tissue in the fascia has iridescent properties and quartz has that same quality. I wonder what about the structure makes those similar. Science and art are both about careful observation and thinking about things on a granular level.