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BLOOMINGTON — Susan Emmerson wants people to be more comfortable with the inside of their bodies and how they work.

For 17 years in Bloomington-Normal, Dr. Emmerson pursued that goal as an ear, nose and throat surgeon.

Now, she is exploring the inner working and beauty of the human body as an artist.

“I do a lot with organic-looking shapes,” Emmerson said in her studio at 1106 E. Bell St., Bloomington, the former Coca-Cola building that is home to several artists’ studios.

“I want to make the inner workings of the human body more familiar,” she said.

Emmerson, 55, of Bloomington, took early retirement from medicine in 2004 to pursue an art career. She returned to school, received a bachelor of fine arts degree from Illinois State University, then and a master of fine arts degree from the Art Institute of Boston in January, and her career has progressed to the point that she is having her first solo professional art exhibit at Eureka College.

The exhibit will include up to 30 small paintings and several large pieces of cut paper and Tyvek. Tyvek is a paper-like material used in building insulation.

“People envision weird stuff happening in their bodies,” Emmerson said. Most depictions of the inside of the body that people see are from horror movies and traffic crashes, she said.

“I don’t want people to think of the inside of the body as yucky,” said the surgeon-turned-artist. “I want them to start thinking of their bodies as fascinating and beautiful.”

But Emmerson’s art is not anatomical drawings that you might find in a medical textbook. Instead, she begins with an anatomic shape — such as an eyeball, a gallstone, a nerve cell, an intestine — “and then I twist them around in my head.” 

Results range from a large, cut Tyvek wall hanging that looks like cells, to drawings that are exaggerations of body tissue, to multi-colored paintings that are whimsical interpretations of body organs.

“I’m not a medical illustrator,” Emmerson said. “I’m an artist. I don’t strive for complete accuracy. That’s not what art is.

“I’m trying to evoke a feeling,” said Emmerson, who is interested in connections between the physical body and the human spirit. “I’m trying to show that these physical structures have something to do with us.”

As a child, Emmerson was interested in art. “I always knew I could draw.”

She wanted to go to art school but her parents and school counselors urged her to pursue a career in which she’d be more likely to find work. It was the mid-1970s, women were being urged to pursue professional careers and Emmerson was proficient in biology.

“I just loved it,” she said of human anatomy.

She graduated from college, went to medical school and decided to specialize in ear, nose and throat surgery.

“I wanted to go in and fix a problem with my hands,” she said. She also liked that ear, nose and throat specialists see a variety of patients. “And a lot of time, the patients get better.”

Emmerson enjoyed her 17 years as an ear, nose and throat specialist in Bloomington-Normal. Along the way, she and her husband, Dr. Michael Emmerson, an ophthalmologist, had two sons — Gordon, now 19, and Sam, 15 — so she was busy raising them as well.

While enjoying her busy lifestyle, she maintained an interest in art and took classes from time to time. She considered transitioning from doctor to artist at some point.

In 2004, she decided it was time.

“I really enjoyed my first career but the system of medicine was changing,” she said. “The money side was frustrating. We were having to look at every patient, not as a patient but as a customer.

“My husband and kids said ‘Do what makes you happy.’ They have always been nothing but encouraging to me.” Leaving medicine for art “was the best decision I ever made.”

Emmerson returned to college to study art. In 2007, her husband died of sudden cardiac arrest at age 47. Her love of art and the support of family and friends helped her during the next few years.

As a student, Emmerson began working with body forms in her paintings. An adviser told her, “This is what you know. Don’t hide your background. Use it.”

“I take what I know about the body and turn it into something more creative. I push my head in a different direction.”

Emmerson paints using acrylics and cuts paper and Tyvek, which doesn’t tear as easily as paper.

An example of her work is a piece hanging in her studio. Emmerson began with a microscopic image of the anatomy of the surface of the brain.

With that image in mind, she took Tyvek, used acrylic to paint various colors on the back and had the colors fade into each other. Then she turned the piece around and began cutting the Tyvek so it is reflective of — but doesn’t look exactly like — the surface of the brain. As the strands of Tyvek twist, you can see shadows of the colors to reflect cells communicating with each other and to reflect memories.

In addition to the Eureka College exhibit, Emmerson’s art is displayed in Normal’s Uptown Station and at several shows.

“Susan’s work gives students an opportunity to understand the connection between science and art,” said Rhea Edge, Eureka College professor of art, chairwoman of fine and performing arts and director of the college’s Burgess Hall Art Gallery. Edge, an environmental artist, has a studio in downtown Bloomington, Beluga Press Studio.

Like many artists, Emmerson hopes to get affiliated with a big city art gallery, which would display some of her work. “You keep entering shows until you get noticed,” she said.

The Eureka show has given her a feeling of accomplishment. But she continues to create.

“I’ve got so many ideas,” Emmerson said. “This is my dream job. I’m having more fun than I’ve ever had.”


‘Inside Out:

Imagined Anatomy’

What: Exhibit by Bloomington artist Susan Emmerson

When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays through Nov. 20 and by appointment by calling 309-467-6866

Where: Burgess Hall Art Gallery, Eureka College, Eureka

Featuring: Up to 30 small paintings and several large pieces of cut paper and Tyvek

Admission: Free

SOURCE: Eureka College

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