Wearing Your Heart on Your Art

Portraiture has been a popular form of art dating back hundreds of years, and the primary subjects were the very wealthy, who could afford, both the time and money, to sit and have their likeness painted by an artist. However, things have changed, and in the 21st century, a camera can capture a perfect portrait in a fraction of a second. Female TorsoFemale TorsoBut what about the parts of our body that every camera from a Hasselblad to an iPhone simply can't see, like the gentle curve of our nasal cavity, the puzzle-piece nature of our internal organs, or the maze of folds and canals that make our brains so beautiful?

For that sort of portrait, you need the art of Lisa Nilsson, who isn't afraid to peel back the skin of reality to create anatomically correct portraits in all their gory glory. What is even more impressive is her medium, a tedious and challenging method called quilling, involving thousands of small, rolled-up pieces of paper.

Each strip of paper is tightly wound into cylinders, fans, ovals, or some other variation of geometric shape, and those individual rolls are then meticulously placed in the larger work. These internal landscapes are not only brilliant from a draftsmanship point of view, but also from an educational one. Looking at works of art is far more impacting than staring at an anatomy textbook during some long-forgotten college course, and the Nilsson brings the human body back to life, so to speak, in a dynamic and engaging way.



Angelico (detail)Angelico (detail)


Angelico (High Detail)Angelico (High Detail)


It takes a unique kind of artist that is willing to spend dozens of hours creating eerily accurate images of organisms, both human and animal. The nearly photorealistic cross-sections are done on such a small scale, they seem to reflect the actual intricacy and delicate nature of our cells, organs, and tissues. Formal education in textbooks and slideshows may be a thorough way to study the human body, but Nilsson brings a tenderness and artistry to the natural designs of the organic form. 

Canis Lupus FamiliarisCanis Lupus Familiaris


Cranium IICranium II

The process of quilling is more complex than looping a piece of paper around your finger a few times and gluing it in place. There are a wide range of tools that can be used to roll the paper smoothly, without creasing or bending, including pins,drill bits, customized quilling tools, and even instruments used in the dental profession. The paper is obviously the other factor; thick or thin, organic or artificial? Should the paper come from a mulberry tree or an oak?

At face value, this artwork is obviously stunning, but the further you delve into the process, the more interesting it becomes. Much of the paper seems to shine in the artwork, and that is probably because it is taken from the edges of old books, which used to be coated in gold gilding. Now, if only she could find a gilded copy of Gray's Anatomy, than the circle of symbolism would be complete!

Head I (detail)Head I (detail)


Female ThoraxFemale Thorax

As unique and impressive as this artwork already is, it seems that the detail and meticulous process to create it has some deeper significance in relation to the subject matter. Depending on your belief system, whether it is evolution or intelligent design, there is no denying that there is an inherent beauty in the complex machinery of life. Philosophers, theologians, atheists, and scientists might all agree on life transcending functionality, and instead being categorized as the greatest work of art.

Nilsson pays tribute to that artistic quality of the human form through the hundreds of painstaking hours that her work requires to achieve such perfection and aesthetic brilliance. Whatever the origins of life and consciousness are, they allowed humans to be self-aware, self-reflective, and awed, so it is only fitting that we turn those abilities inward and reveal the art that lies beneath the surface.



Profile (High Detail)Profile (High Detail)


Abdomen (detail)Abdomen (detail)


Nilsson has had her work exhibited widely on the east coast of the US, most recently at the Boston Art Gallery as an instructional and inspirational tool as a featured element of the exhibition "Teaching the Body: Artistic Anatomy in the American Academy". She is based out of New York, and her pieces can be seen in person at the gallery that represents her magnificent work, the Pavel Zoubok Gallery. So, what do you think? Is this anatomical artistry something that gets your blood pumping, or is a little too much form and not enough function? Share your thoughts!

If you want to explore more of Lisa Nilsson's intricate style, learn about her techniques, or add some of these works to your own collection, than visit her website!

Is your heart still pounding for more art? Check out all of my Art Outside the Lines, and follow me on Twitter or Google+ to get the updates on all of my newest featured articles!


All images subject to copyright by the artist.