The Transvengers: Origins

A group of young trans people from Gendered Intelligence worked with an artist to produce The Transvengers: a web comic that will feature in the forthcoming Institute of Sexology exhibition at Wellcome Collection. In this series, Jason Barker, the artist in question, writes about his experience of working with the group. In this post he talks about the process.

In the beginning we drew a lot. We drew self portraits, played drawing games, drew in pairs and we made collaborative drawings on long rolls of paper. We shared jokes, stories, ideas or silence while we drew. These drawings were part of the process of finding out what our comic was about, the characters that would be in it, their backstories and the locations in which events would take place.

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Inside the Creative Mind: A palette of red

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Artist Elaine Duigenan is working with young women at New Horizons Youth Centre. She has devised and is running a series of six workshops that explore connections with works in the current Wellcome Collection exhibition, Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan. She’s writing a series of blog posts to relay some of the ideas and outcomes in words and pictures; here’s the fourth.

For this workshop I wanted to do two tasks extending from the work of Masao Obata.  He makes the most beautiful pencil drawings on brown box cardboard.  The work is very particular in that he always uses a warm colour palette of red and orange hues and uses colour pencils.  He also rounds the edges of the work.

To introduce the topic I showed my own effort to emulate his style.  I wanted to encourage participants to think about their relationships, be they with family or friends, and then draw something that would describe them.  For some it was timely as, for example, J was very concerned about a close friend moving on from the hostel (where the workshops are based) – she was keen to talk and clearly felt that the group was a safe place in which to do so.

The technique of pencil on cardboard lacks the vibrancy of felt pens and brought some reminiscence of early school days.  We observed how Obata not only drew ‘characters’ but also decorated his cardboard canvas with motifs and tendrils – his compositions display a considered and flowing order.

It was interesting what emerged about the relationships in every drawing. I had suggested that if anyone was stuck they could draw, like Obata, a simple boat shape and place their figures within, but V had all her family assembled in a flowerpot and described it as ‘pot bound’.  J expressed her concerns about her friend leaving with coiled hearts taking flight. H surprised herself by drawing an isolated figure, cross-legged at the top of some broad steps, head down and “lonely looking”…

The second part of the workshop introduced a fun technique for printing using sellotape.  We tried photocopying the work we had just made but the tonal range didn’t have enough contrast.  However, by using some collages from an earlier workshop we were able to get good results.  The technique requires photocopies from a machine that uses toner or from a laser copier. One of the participants, S, is five months pregnant and clearly very excited about this new chapter in her life.  She happened to have her recent scan images with her and was delighted to be able to use them as the basis for her printmaking.  It was wonderful to hear her chatting as she made her prints and was excited about being able to turn her scans into lasting mini artworks.  I could not have anticipated that this would be an outcome of the workshop, but it really made my day to see her so engaged and delighting in the process of making art.

Souzou runs until Sunday 30 June. Find out more about Elaine’s work at

A good death

Jean's bed

Jean's bed

Next week, Joanna Walsh’s Ars Moriendi opens at Wellcome Collection. A large-scale drawing in the Collection lobby, it will deal with the process of dying in a medicalised culture, and what our hopes for a ‘good death’ are. Here, Joanna explains how she came to deal with the subject of death and discusses the Sobell Hospice, a place where residents are allowed to create an art of their own dying.

It started when the woman living next door to me, who is in her 90s, became bedridden. She is cared for at home by her widowed son. Her bedroom shares a wall with mine and I can hear her: sometimes she watches the telly, sometimes she talks to herself, sometimes she is in pain.

She is having what most people consider to be a ‘good’ death: in her own home surrounded by her family, something many people are not lucky enough to experience. Her dying presence has necessarily become part of my life.

I began to wonder about how we expect to die in our highly medicalised culture where our choices may be constrained by hospital treatments, and whether this ties up with what we would hope for. In a culture where death is taboo and art about dying is scarce or considered morbid, there are few continuing visual traditions surrounding ‘a good death’. I investigated art from the past in the Wellcome Collection’s library and was impressed with the delicacy and beauty of the object created in response to such a dark and difficult subject.

Sobell House Hospice and its patients kindly allowed me to draw them during January and February 2011. Although it cares for patients who need more medical attention than would be possible in their own homes, Sobell allows patients, their families and friends to create their own environments, altering them as much or as little as they desire and circumstances allow. It also encourages facing dying through creativity in the form of music, art or religious contemplation. At Sobell, patients are allowed to create their own Ars Moriendi – their personal art of dying.

Music Therapy

Music Therapy

Never having been in one before, I felt pretty nervous the first time I visited the hospice and I had two meetings with staff and managers before I started to draw.

One of them told me, “You’ll get a lot of different reactions. Some of the patients will ask you why you’re here, whether a relative of yours has died, whether your parents are both still alive. Some of them will ask you whether you believe in God. Some of them will tell you to fuck off.”

I said that I really couldn’t blame them.

I started drawing in the day room – a gentle introduction to the hospice – where in-patients mix with day patients, talking, drinking tea and working on projects with an art therapist. It’s pretty free and easy. One regular was served an 11am pint of bitter and another brought his dog. After a while I noticed there was something about the banter between patients that was almost flirtatious, a little afterwards realising that this could be because so many of the older patients were probably, and sadly, recently single.

Art Therapy

Art Therapy

I spent one of my mornings in the dayroom watching a cookery class. It’s so much like any other cookery club you’d hardly credit the hospice setting until patients start comparing their experience of chemotherapy between deciding whether the icing should be chocolate or vanilla.

This easy conversation, mixing hospital stories with recipes, dogcare advice and remeniscences, is one of the great things about Sobell. The patients know that everyone is in a similar boat and no topics are off-limits.



The hospice building is circular, built around a courtyard and surrounded by a paved and planted city garden. Both the public and patients’ areas are designed to maximize light and each resident’s ground-floor room has access to the outdoors. Furniture is natural wood or nature-identical laminate. Pale floral patterns dominate the curtains and cushions. Outside it’s January but inside the thermostat is set to constant Spring.

The day room

The day room

You can follow Joanna’s work on her blog, Badaude.

Getting all cut up about it

Partially dissected head, by Johann Conrad Zeller

Partially dissected head, by Johann Conrad Zeller

Ten years after the Human Genome Project’s publication of the first draft of the human genome, we’ve become used to thinking of our own physical bodies in terms of acids and proteins invisible to the human eye. It’s salutary to remember, then, that for most of its history the medical profession learned about human bodies by cutting them open and investigating what was inside. You can see some of the results in our new Explore topic, dissection.

Dissection hasn’t always been easy, or even permitted: Roman law forbade autopsy, meaning that Galen gained most of his anatomical knowledge from dissecting the corpses of pigs and apes, assuming that the underlying structures were broadly similar. Islam and Christianity had fewer proscriptions on the treatment of cadavers; Vesalius began dissection in earnest in Padua in the 16th century. It was his student, the Englishman William Harvey, who in 1628 made a breakthrough in discovering the function of the heart. This surprisingly comprehensive film from the Royal College of Surgeons contains some rather gory illustrations of Harvey’s analysis of how the blood travels around the body.

As you might have noticed in our current exhibition, the first thing to go when examining the structure of the human body is its skin. The tradition of écorché (literally meaning ‘flayed’) displays the human body with its muscles and bones detailed, devoid of its covering. Drawing the body as a medical illustration produces eerie portraits. This 16th-century image of a flayed man looks as if he might simply have stopped for a rest were it not for his exposed thorax; this 19th-century illustration of the brain and spinal cord, on the other hand, looks more like something David Cronenberg might have dreamed up.

Understanding the underlying human anatomy has also been important to artists: these écorché chalk drawings of a horse’s head and a male figure by Charles Landseer were produced on a course in anatomical drawing organised in 1813 by the British painter Benjamin Haydon, who thought that artists should follow Michelangelo and Raphael in naturalistic portrayal of the human body. Artists also produced portraits of famous anatomists at work; this image of 18th-century Dutch anatomy lecturer Willem Röell shows him presenting a dissected knee joint to the Amsterdam guild of surgeons.

Dissection isn’t always a comfortable subject. This illustration of two men examining a corpse by the light of a candle in its chest implies disrespect for human remains. Contrast it with this photograph of an early 20th-century university dissecting room: altogether more serious and scientific. Nevertheless, our fascination with the deconstructed human body persists, as the ongoing global success of Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds confirms.

Guest post: Against Nature – My experience of being drawn

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Among the exhibits at Skin Lab, part of the ‘Skin’ exhibition at Wellcome Collection, is ‘Against Nature’, a series of portraits produced by artist Gemma Anderson and Melissa Smith, a patient with epidermolysis bullosa (EB) – a genetic skin disorder that causes the skin and internal body-linings to blister with the slightest physical contact.

Introduced by the clinicians running a trial for a new EB treatment, Gemma and Melissa met on a number of occasions to discuss Melissa’s experiences, resulting in a series of intricate drawings and an audio interview. These provide a poignant and personal insight into the daily life and treatment experiences of a person with EB. They also explore a host of metaphors and analogies, such as the parallels that exist between the deterioration of the skin and the decomposition process of plants and other organic forms, and finding beauty in decay.

Here, Melissa recounts how she got involved with the project and what it taught her about her condition, and herself. In a companion post on the Wellcome Trust blog, Melissa discusses the innovative new fibroblast treatment described in the exhibition.

When the Wellcome Trust first contacted me about this exhibition, I was intrigued. The new EB treatment that had attracted their attention had been a new experience for me in itself. In a lifetime of having dressings and creams on my skin, injecting cells into the skin had been a great leap forward in the treatment of EB, although to the outside world it may seem like only a tentative step in the right direction.

From that new encounter now came the chance of another: being drawn by an artist. I had been interviewed for TV, magazines and newspapers before, but that was all so structured and practised that every interview felt the same. It was too interesting and unique an offer for me to pass over, and so I agreed to get involved.

I did feel some apprehension; EB is so visual, so destructive and often disgusting, that I wasn’t wholly sure that I could face those issues head on. But I knew there was only one way to find out.

It took quite a long time for Gemma and I to meet, due to EB playing its usual tricks by putting me in hospital, or leaving me housebound. I finally made it to Gemma’s studio in April, and instantly felt at ease. I think I had been expecting an eccentric, middle-aged archetypal artist (you’d think I would know better than pigeonhole people!), but I found a lovely, friendly young woman, with whom I shared a lot of interests.

We talked about EB: how it affects me and how I treat it on a daily basis, what the injections felt like and how they had worked. We also talked about my interests, and I realised then how personal the drawings would be to me.

I told Gemma that I’ve never identified with the image of EB sufferers being as delicate as butterflies’ wings, as it’s far too saccharine for me. I feel it glosses over what EB does to those who have it.

When we discussed my favourite book: Against Nature by J.K. Huysmans, everything fell into place. My love for his description of hothouse flowers – which, even with their wounded, scarred appearance, retain a sense of exotic beauty and wonder – fitted with Gemma’s interests and artworks perfectly. I felt that Gemma understood my interests better than anyone else had before, and my worries about facing up to the visual aspects of EB dissipated.

Sitting for the drawings was very restful, and whilst Gemma drew my face and upper body, classical music on the radio helped to switch off my fidgetiness. I thought that I would feel self-conscious, but I actually felt very relaxed. And when Gemma drew my hands, she lead me to look at them in a different way; to stop seeing them as deformities, and instead see all of the intricacies of their skin and shape. I could see them in a horticultural light, reflected in the Anthuriums.

Though I had related to the hothouse flower imagery I had found in Against Nature, it wasn’t until Gemma began to draw me that I could really believe in it, especially when she likened my wounds and blisters to flowers blossoming and opening up.

The process of sitting was much less formal than I had expected, and thus much more enjoyable. We could chat and get to know each over the sessions, which, for me at least, added to the drawings; what I saw in them and what I felt when I looked at them. Even the audio interview was different and new; I didn’t have a camera in my face or a stern journalist asking the same old questions before putting words in my mouth. We sipped our tea, calmed our giggles, and then recorded what felt more like a friendly chat than an interview.

I greatly appreciated Gemma asking me to tell the story about a night out with my friends, because it’s a reminder that you really can live with EB, even though it might be difficult at times. As a friend of mine said, “I don’t live with EB, it lives with me”.

‘Against Nature’ felt like the perfect title for this project; I adore the book, because it gave me a greater understanding of my life, and gave me a new way of looking at my skin, which transferred into Gemma’s drawings. I’ve also had comments throughout my life that imply that I, and my skin, aren’t natural, that genetic defects are ‘against nature’. But it is also perfect because this treatment, and any other medical intervention, is ‘against nature’. I believe that Gemma’s work shows how beautiful and complex being ‘against nature’ can be.

Melissa Smith

You can find out more about the exhibit and Gemma Anderson’s other work on her website and blog. Gemma also has another show, ‘Drawings and Etchings of Ezo’ currently at The Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation in London until 13 July.