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A HistoArt image of dermis titled "Iris."

An image of dermis--dense irregular connective tissue comprised of randomly woven collagen fibers that forms the deeper layer of the skin.

Beauty beyond skin-deep

By Bruce Erickson

Published on August 27, 2004

Most people are familiar with the phrase, "beauty is only skin-deep," but University of Minnesota, Duluth (UMD) histology professor Stephen Downing and Miranda Pollack Edel, UMD graduate and artist, prove it goes much deeper. Downing and Edel have created and developed HistoArt (TM), which, according to their Web site, "is a unique combination of the disciplines of histology and art." Histology is the study of the structure and function of the cells, tissues, and organs of the body as viewed through a microscope. In 1991, Downing started a project intended to help teach histology class. Using a photomicroscope, he began to photograph the histology slide collection at UMD. "During the 90s, as the ability to digitize images and manipulate or modify images using a variety of computer image altering software programs increased, it struck me that we could make many of these histology images very attractive and also reveal to the general public what a work of art the body really is," says Downing.

Future plans for HistoArt may include putting images on silk scarves and ties, or possibly customizing images for individuals based on their own histological biopsies.

Downing met Edel while she was while working in UMD's School of Medicine and finishing her bachelor of fine arts degree. "It occurred to me, thinking that I might be somewhat artistically impaired, that Miranda might have an interest in working with some of the histology images and could provide an artist's bent to the project," says Downing. Today Downing and Edel create the HistoArt prints by taking the histology photographs, digitizing the images with a high-resolution slide scanner, and modifying them on the computer with new colors and color combinations to make the final products. While not all of the more than 10,000 histology photographs will make nice artwork, Downing and Edel look for images that have textures, fabric-like appearances, or patterns. They also look for images with broad appeal. For example, because of the high number of heart patients, Downing says they plan to turn cardiac muscle into HistoArt. Future plans may also include putting images on silk scarves and ties, or possibly customizing images for individuals based on their own histological biopsies. Last summer, examples of HistoArt were on display at two, month-long shows in Duluth. In addition, prints have been displayed at the Outside In restaurant in the Phillips-Wangensteen building on the Twin Cities campus in Minneapolis and at the Campus Club in Minneapolis' Coffman Memorial Union. Reactions from viewers have been positive, including an e-mail Downing received from a visiting professor, which states: "I was recently at the University of Minnesota and had a chance to see some of your artwork at the faculty club. It is absolutely fabulous--one of the highlights of my visit!" From an original article in Gateway to Research and Inventions, summer 2004.