As a young girl dedicated to becoming a fashion designer, Lauren Toomer never imagined herself dissecting cadavers. But in her teen years, as a break from the tedium of sewing, she got some of those books that use 16th-century etchings by Leonardo da Vinci to teach beginners how to draw, and a new passion took hold. Now, like Leonardo, who dissected and sketched corpses in his quest to understand the human form, Toomer, MFA ’15, finds inspiration for much of her artwork in the anatomy lab.
A visual artist and teacher, Toomer says her preferred form is pencil drawings, although she also makes sculptures. She designed a brick installation on campus, Renewal, which mirrors the waves of a heartbeat on a vitals monitor. Another, Apart-Together, is a field of wooden petals designed in memory of those who have died in the COVID-19 pandemic.
“For me, drawing a painting is like creating a visual poem. I don’t have the skill set to put it into words, but I can attempt to do it with marks.”
“Art and medicine have always been linked,” says Toomer, who’s now a lecturer in the departments of art and art history and of surgery. As a master’s student in fine art at Stanford, she lobbied to perform dissections alongside first-year medical students. The connection was so strong for her that in 2015, while still a student, she created a course called Anatomy for Artists that she has been teaching ever since. The easels go up next to the cadavers, and students from product design to medicine learn how to use art to connect with bodies in a new way.
“For them to be able to hold and handle the body parts is amazing,” Toomer says. “We study the hand, the foot, as well as the face, the torso. To be present and to draw people who are no longer living—to me, that is just such a beautiful thing.”
HANDS-ON LEARNING: At the anatomy lab’s virtual dissection table (above) or in her office (left), Toomer favors a tactile approach to education.
“I knew I was going to be a fashion designer since before I could walk. I would take out clothes and put them together. I was so particular with colors, the design of them, how they were paired. My mom put me in sewing lessons and 4-H. I continued up until college, advancing in competitions. It was like a job, and I was getting burned out. All those needle pricks. I wasn’t happy anymore. I started drawing just for fun.
“I studied art as an undergraduate and took an art, medicine, and disability course that opened my eyes to how art can help in our well-being. In hindsight, that made me interested in art and anatomy.
“When I came [to the Stanford dissection lab], I just wanted to draw the body. The more I did, and the more I dissected, the more my brain exploded. It took on new and deeper meaning—things like how the heart beats and how it happens so effortlessly; like how someone who has died and someone who is sleeping look different.
“The body kind of remains fluid. You never really know the depths. You keep going and going—there are always more questions. You’re always trying to find more answers.
“I remember taking out a brain. It’s surreal. For me, that is a moment of art. It makes you more present and more aware. Art has the ability to do that, to help you appreciate your own body.”
Tracie White is a senior writer at Stanford. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.