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Science and Art event raises money for biomedical research

By Ian Dillingham, Summer Editor in Chief
Published May 23, 2014

Smooth jazz played, cocktails were served and donors were schmoozed — all the appearances of a typically University fundraiser.

However, those gathered at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit Thursday evening were engaging in something different, as physician-scientists from the A. Alfred Taubman Medical Research Institute paired with professional artists to create 11 pieces for the first-ever Evening of Art and Science event.

The pieces, all original works inspired by research being conducted at the institute, were used to raise funds for the institute and its scholars. After being paired with a scientist, each artist had the opportunity to tour the lab and learn about the work being done before creating the piece. In turn, several of the scientists traveled to the artists’ studios to learn more about the artistic process.

Ranging from paintings to sculptures to video displays, the art sought to encapsulate the nature of research through the exploration of a great number of media.

Some of the art, such as Koen Vanmechelen’s “Bio-Care” series, explored complex scientific principles. Vanmechelen, who was paired with Charles Burant, professor of internal medicine and molecular and integrative physiology, used a process called untargeted metabolomic profiling to create webs showcases the physiological similarities and differences between humans and other animals.

Other submissions, such as Aku Kadogo’s “Love Cancer” series, drew focus toward the human aspect of disease and health. After being paired with Ronald Buckanovich, assistant professor of internal medicine and obstetrics and gynecology, Kadogo said she was moved by the love that he showed for his cancer patients. She said her piece, a series of photographs of her in the brush, inspired by recent fires in Sydney, Australia, portrayed the “patient” as a “warrior” in the fight against cancer.

“It was really a humbling and a flattering experience to have someone want to make art out of our science,” Buckanovich said. “My patients will know they have terminal illness … and that is a really difficult thing to discuss and a lot of patients express that through art.”

The art pieces were available to attendees through auction or purchase, and were valued anywhere from $150 to $40,000. Prior to the art showcase, the Institute hosted an exclusive dinner, which provided some of the artists and scientists a chance to discuss the process with potential donors.

Artist Allie McGhee said he spent years as an abstract landscape painter before he decided he wanted to learn more about the science behind what made his subjects come to life.

“I got bored with the subject matter,” McGhee said. “I wanted to know more about my subject — what made trees what they are — so I started to look at the microworld … I learned a great deal, a lot of it that I plan on using for the rest of my life, because these are realities you can’t ignore.”

His research partner, David Pinsky, professor of molecular and integrative physiology said he recognized themes and patterns in McGhee’s work that reflected on observations he’d made in the lab, such as the shape and flow of blood cells in human tissue. He also said that they both understood the power of art to provide comfort to those facing serious illness.

“As a healer, art has a lot of meaning — deep meaning,” Pinsky said. “Sometimes it can be dark and can be scary, but that’s what disease is.”


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