Her hand depicts the workings of our lives, macro to micro
In a dimly lit basement room, Kate Sweeney is working cheek by jowl with renowned orthopedic surgeon Sigvard Hansen. They’re placing a screw in a patient’s ankle.
“These are drill holes with bone graft in them. Put the graft in and put the screw through here,” Hansen says, gesturing. Inches above the exposed bone, Sweeney hovers, considering her angle of approach. Then comes her careful stroke.
She and Hansen are updating images for his textbook’s next edition.
When she is not creating fine art, Sweeney illustrates scientific and medical concepts at UW Creative, a small studio in the Health Sciences Building that produces websites, posters, photography and other visuals for departments and teams campus-wide.
Her portfolio reflects a long, detailed fascination with the way things work: physical processes, biological systems and humans’ relationship with the environment. She takes joy in depicting scientists’ theories and the discoveries they propel.
“I just worked with [UW Medicine oncologist] Maxwell Krem on a set of illustrations about DNA breakage that leads to mutations. It’s a conceptualized view of what happens at the chromosomal level,” she said.
A current project: drawings for the U.S. government to help pursue legal claims over the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
“They’re using a lot of visuals to explain the complexity of how the spill affected the flora and fauna of the ecosystem. It’s taking complicated science and sorting it out for the nonscientist,” Sweeney says, giving voice to her motivation.
“The client needs something visualized. This is scientific information you can’t mess with – you have to faithfully represent it – but how beautiful can you make it? How creative can you be?”
Her anatomical renderings, though creatively constrained, provide guidance to physicians, so may be consequential to patients’ outcomes.
“I provide a prompt for surgeons’ intelligence,” she said. “My illustration is the ideal version that helps surgeons improvise once they get in there.”
Sig Hansen agreed: “Anatomy has to be illustrated so surgeons know what to expect – what things look like when they’re healthy and diseased, and how they should look after the repair is made. Photographs of surgery are harder to interpret because there’s always a little bleeding. A really good illustration is much better at getting things across, especially with students.”
Medical illustration has been a formal discipline since the early 20th century. Sweeney, whose career has produced buckets of pencil shavings and eraser nubbins, relishes the advantage, today, of digital media.
“The old way, you started with a pencil sketch and refined that as much as possible before you inked it. If there were more changes after you inked it, you wanted to commit hara-kiri.
“On a computer I can change the angle of the screw or nudge it in just a few seconds. I can drop components from one illustration into another. I’ve got my own chop shop of perfect views that I can repurpose over and over.”
It has long been said that pictures are worth a thousand words. Clearly, though, digital technology has further heightened the obligation of educators and communicators everywhere to provide information visually.
David Godwin, a UW professor of radiology and thoracic radiologist, explained how Sweeney’s work helped his team’s presentation stand out at a national conference.
“Having color diagrams of these diseases made our x-rays and CT scans more comprehensible. The illustrations remove barriers, create interest and I think they help cement concepts for people,” he said. “The creativity to come up with a way to illustrate these concepts is very special.”
Said oncologist Krem: “She turned my scientific vision into something palpable and alive.”