Learning from Limberg

5 August 2010

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Artist Rhian Solomon‘s works ‘Lessons on Limberg’ and ‘Bodycloth’ appear in Skin Lab, part of our current Skin exhibition. Here she discusses how she worked with a plastic surgeon to create works in the spirit of a Russian pioneer in the art of folding human skin.

The concept for the project was to compare and contrast the realms of skin and of cloth. I am a textile artist and my collaborator, Brian Morgan, is a retired plastic surgeon and the archivist of The British Association of Plastic Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgeons. Our inspiration was a text written by pioneering Russian surgeon A. A. Limberg, whose lifetime was committed to the planning of surgical operations on the body surface.

Limberg collated much of his works into a book, The planning of local plastic operations on the body surface: theory and practice (translated into English in 1984), that proposed the use of paper model-making as a means of understanding how the skin responds in localised areas during plastic operations. It consists of beautiful mathematical illustrations of these  models and of their anatomical applications, which I immediately became excited about. What was particularly interesting were the similarities they shared with dress making patterns: the geometry and technique of pattern cutting.

Two works were commissioned for Wellcome Collection’s Skin exhibition, ‘Bodycloth’ (a film which tells the story of the collaboration) and ‘Lessons on Limberg’ (a selection of models from Limberg’s text, made from fabric). Together they form the crucial starting point for potential knowledge transfer between such disciplines and pose the question ‘can we cut our skin in the same way that we cut our cloth, and vice versa?’

In my selection of fabric and the processes used to construct the surgical models I wanted to represent the qualities of live skin and how a surgeon would treat the skin during an operation. Stretch, translucency, pigmentation, and ability to manipulate were all taken into consideration.

On numerous occasions I documented Brian’s descriptions of surgical techniques, of skin traits. He would talk of the grain of skin: the warp and the weft, and of the variation in skin tone across the body itself. Such interviews informed the processes that would be used in the project.

I wanted to work with the fabric as it existed, no additional ‘grafts’ were used. I found myself performing these mini operations in my studio – using a combination of both Brian’s and my own tools. The fabric that I selected was a faux leather, that had the aesthetic qualities of skin on one side and maintained its material qualities in its stretch. Real leather was not used, as the tanning of the skin causes the collagen and elastin fibres to contract removing the natural elastic qualities.

I screen printed the underside of the faux leather with a devore burn out paste that made the cloth translucent by removing the underlying fibres. This process also suggested the circumstances in which a surgeon would remove underlying layers of fat during surgery in order to improve blood supply to the surface layers of skin and also to aid in the manipulation of skin flaps.

The exterior of the models were screen printed with Limberg’s model illustrations, suggesting the ways in which the skin is marked out with a pen prior to a procedure. I decided to use a selection of stitch types for the construction of the models – some used only in dress making, some in surgery and some in both disciplines. Four models in total were constructed – shown in both their preconstructed  and constructed stages, alongside anatomical illustrations that illustrated the application of these particular models/procedures on the body.

The commissioned film shows the experiences of Brian and me in our disciplines – comparing and contrasting the processes, fabrics and tools of our trades. It also illustrates how Limberg’s surgical models work. They are moving models that show changes in surface form when skin is manipulated by the surgeon. Stop frame animation allowed us to illustrate this.

The project has highlighted just how similar the disciplines of textiles and surgery can be. The next stage is to start to bring specialists from within these areas together to see what potential there is for knowledge transfer between the two. In particular I aim to nurture relations between dress making pattern cutters and plastic surgeons, in response to the visual language and technique outlined by Limberg’s text.

You can find out more about Rhian’s work at www.rhiansolomon.co.uk.