Inside of us, an astonishing yardage of tissue is compressed, fold by fold, into our compact frames. Anatomically speaking, our bodies are works of organ origami, bound by epidermal papercraft. This metaphor of the body as an assemblage of neatly rolled and folded tissues is one that Massachusetts artist Lisa Nilsson explores in her “anatomical cross-sections,” which accurately reproduce the skeleton and organs inside a bisected human body out of pieces of paper.
Currently on exhibit at New York’s Pavel Zoubok Gallery, Nilsson creates her organigami using a technique called quilling, or paper filigree. In quilling, strips of paper are rolled, shaped, and glued together into often quite elaborate designs. The technique has been practiced (with pinky fingers out) by ladies of leisure since the 18th century. Nillson’s take on quilling, however, is far from dainty. The North Adams–based artist’s favorite subject is to re-create gruesome drawings of dissected cadavers.
“When I started experimenting with quilling, a friend sent me a link to the Archives de Doyen, an early-19th-century French surgical journal that included a hand-colored photograph of a cadaver,” remembers Nilsson. The shapes and textures she saw in the image were reminiscent of those Nilsson had been working with in her quilling experiments. It was a natural fit.
Over time, Nilsson has found inspiration in other necronomicons: paper tracings made from a sectioned cadaver in Topographisch-anatomischer Atlas by Wilhem Braune, and the Visible Human Project, a detailed data set of cross-sectional photographs provided by the U.S. National Library Of Medicine. With the exception of the bones, which are made from the gilt-edged paper of old books, Nilsson’s materials are 1/4-inch strips of Japanese mulberry paper (“It has a lovely combination of strength and pliability, and is available in a subtle and sophisticated color palette,” Nilsson says) and book-binder’s glue.
To create one of her anatomical cross-sections, Nilsson will begin at some central location, such as the spinal cord, and work her way out, winding narrow paper strips around pins, pinching and shaping each sinew, aorta, or muscle, and then gluing it to its neighbor. “The process is very much like building a puzzle, and has some of the same addictive qualities,” she notes. When the cross-section is done, Nilsson paints the back of the sculpture with glue, then binds it to a backing board to complete the sculpture.
Although Nilsson’s papercraft cross-sections seem gorily realistic to an untrained eye, Nilsson is careful to note that she is a sculptor and artist first, and that her work might not meet the standards of accuracy practiced by many of the medical illustrators whom she admires. But total realism is not the point. “I like for the work to mimic what one would see if one were looking at an actual anatomical slice, a bit of a tromp l’oeil effect,” Nilsson tells me. You’re just not necessarily meant to perform an autopsy after consulting one.
Nilsson’s work is on display at the Pavel Zoubok Gallery until November 9.