Doctors, artists collaborate to fund medical research

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

Ann Arbor artist Christina Burch has long been interested in eastern medicine.

So a visit to Dr. David Pinsky’s lab at the University of Michigan Hospital’s Frankel Cardiovascular Center — a pinnacle of western medicine — was a stimulating glimpse into a futuristic, if somewhat alien, high-tech universe.

Burch transformed what she saw into a painting, “Forest of Love: the Heart’s Great Repose,” that illustrates her vision of Pinsky’s research. “I’d just started a new series on hearts in my own work,” she says. “So it was cool to get hooked up with the university’s chief of cardiology.”

Burch and Pinsky were brought together by the university’s A. Alfred Taubman Medical Research Institute, which paired 19 clinician-scientists with artists in the belief that collaboration would stimulate the creativity of each — and yield interesting works of art.

Some of the Detroit area’s most notable artists participated, including Beverly Fishman, Scott Hocking, Olayami Dabls, Catie Newell, Bryant Tillman, Sharon Que and Senghor Reid.

The resulting artworks will be auctioned Thursday at the Taubman Institute’s third-annual gala fundraiser, “An Evening of Art + Science,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. Proceeds will benefit the Institute’s Emerging Scholars Program.

The public is welcome to attend. Tickets are $350 apiece, just for dinner, or $500 apiece for dinner and VIP pre-party. (Most of the ticket price is tax-deductible.)

The Emerging Scholars Program makes grants to junior medical faculty to help them set up their own research laboratories to engage in work that might be too speculative or daring for conventional funding sources like the National Institutes of Health.

Each Emerging Scholar gets $200,000 over five years. The hope this year is that the gala will raise enough to fund one new scholar, says Institute Director Dr. Eva Feldman. “But as the event grows and gets more traction,” she adds, “we hope to fund two or maybe even three scholars a year. It really gives them a jump.”

For his part, Pinsky visited Burch’s studio at the Tsogyelgar Dharma center and farm in the countryside west of Ann Arbor. He was struck as much as anything, he says, by the environment’s astonishing serenity, which he felt was reflected in Burch’s artwork. It is a sharp contrast, one assumes, to his own work environment.

Pinsky calls the retreat, a bit enviously, “a place of great peace. And when I look at Christina’s painting now,” he adds, “that eastern tradition she’s interested in just jumps out at me.”

What Burch painted, essentially, is a bucolic scene of birds cavorting in tree branches, surrounded by red berries, a work with an almost classical Chinese or Japanese aspect.

“If you’re making a painting, you want to do something poetic with it,” Burch says. “And if you look at photographs of red blood cells moving through the arteries, they look like little berries.”

Pinsky, not surprisingly, reads things differently. “I see red blood cells traversing through vessels and the chambers of the heart,” he says, “though of course, it’s all in the eye of the beholder.”

He’s the first to admit that the worlds of art and medicine, seemingly so far distant, have far more overlap than commonly assumed.

“As scientists,” Pinsky says, “we look through microscopes at shapes and how they turn and twist. The natural world has patterns, and as scientists, we try to reveal those patterns.”

Osman Khan, an artist and professor at the U-M Stamps School of Art & Design, worked with Dr. Johann Gudjonsson, who studies psoriasis and other skin diseases.

Psoriasis is caused when the natural production of new skin “goes nutso,” as Khan puts it. This put him in mind of other sorts of skins, in this case an orange and a Jamaican ugli fruit, which he peeled and turned into a surprisingly elegant photograph.

He also used those materials to create two small sculptures, “Politician 1” and “Politician 2.”

The idea of a natural system going berserk led almost inevitably, Khan admits, to this year’s presidential election. As a result, “Politician 1” — a small, blocky white guy with a flattened orange peel on top of his head, is a dead giveaway for the season’s most-controversial candidate.

Khan laughs. “That was based on Donald Trump. I’m not going to lie.”


(313) 222-6021


‘An Evening of Art + Science’

Thursday, 5:30 p.m.: VIP pre-party; 6:30 p.m.: dinner

Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, 4454 Woodward, Detroit

Tickets: $350 for dinner, $500 for VIP pre-party and dinner

Call (734) 763-5268 or visit taubmanartandscience.org.