DRAW: Codifying Surgery

Text and photographs by Danaë Tzotzos, MA Visual Arts: Printmaking, Camberwell College of Arts

Pen and ink drawing on paper

Drawing by Jenny Wright, pen and ink

Wednesday 10 May 2017, Chelsea College of Arts

After her talk at the latest DRAW event, Jenny Wright, “drawist” and PhD student at Wimbledon College of Arts, was asked how her engagement with surgical drawing first began. Jenny related how, on a visit to the Hunterian Museum of the Royal Society of Surgeons, she was approached by a surgeon who rapidly fleshed out – pen on paper – an anatomical detail of the skeleton on display. “So surgeons still draw then?” Jenny asked. Upon which the surgeon denied that what he had produced was a drawing, and hid it away.

This tension between surgeons and artists, between how surgeons perceive their work and how others perceive it, was an underlying thread running through Jenny’s entire talk, entitled “Drawing Systems in Surgery”. As the title suggests, Jenny’s position on surgeons who “don’t draw” is clear: “I have never met one”. And in her talk she argued her case persuasively.

Jenny Wright presents

Jenny Wright presents her work to DRAW

During the course of her PhD, Jenny has worked closely with surgeons, both consulting her own assigned clinical supervisor, as well as attending surgical operations in operating theatres. A part from describing the surgical procedural in detail, she repeatedly emphasised the ethical ramifications of documenting operations – permission from the patients is a prerequisite, adherence to a strict surgical code is vital, and any record must be unidentifiable with the patient, and in some cases destroyed.

However, the focus of Jenny’s talk was the role of drawing in surgery, which is three-fold. First of all, surgeons use drawing as a “rehearsal” – a means of mental priming, of imprinting gestures to their muscle memory – before the surgery itself begins. Jenny described how she had observed surgeons in such cases, treating the paper as though it were a part of the patient’s body. Particularly graphic was her story of a surgeon, who in explaining a cataract operation by making a circular tear in the paper.

Attendees were able to see some of Jenny’s original drawings, inspired by the movements of surgeons during surgery

Surgeons also use drawings as a plan or record – a means of explaining a surgical strategy to the patient, nurses and fellow specialists. Drawing, as opposed to photographic imaging, strips down the information to it’s bare essentials through schematisation and codification. This is why it continues to be not only relevant, but crucial to surgery. Finally, surgeons use drawing to map out their planned actions onto the body of the patient, responding to the physical state of the body in situ, which may have changed significantly since it was first probed.

Drawings by Jenny Wright, made in response to the act of suturing by different surgeons

Drawings by Jenny Wright, made in response to the act of suturing by different surgeons

Jenny’s own practice straddles all three aforementioned functions. Through her drawings she attempts, on the one hand, to (mentally and physically) comprehend the gestural and haptic experiences of surgeons as they are operating. On the other, she aims to communicate this information to the viewer. She showed us, for example, her renditions of three operations – the intense gestures of an experienced surgeon urgently performing cardiac surgery, the loose gestures of a confident clinician working on soft tongue tissue, the careful and tentative gestures of a young medic suturing a lip.

Drawing by Jenny Wright