The artwork is matted, framed and hung on white walls, just like any other art exhibit. But instead of picturesque landscapes or bowls of fruit, the canvases depict images such as the influenza virus and bear titles like "Pancreatic Acinar Cells."
The collection, called "Redefining the Medical Artist," showcases the work of medical illustrators, whose pieces are usually found in science textbooks and pharmaceutical brochures.
"It's art, but it's like, 'Wow, that's what the pancreatic cell looks like,' " said Meena Malhotra, 31, a medical illustration graduate student who helped organize the new exhibit at the International Museum of Surgical Science. "It's unusual because most of the time our artwork is not exhibited on the wall," she said, standing among pieces titled "Anatomy of Immune Systems" and "Ebola Virus Within a Vessel.
As patients demand more information about their health care and technology unearths new information about cellular behavior, medical illustration is in big demand to bridge a gap between complicated science and lay people, say experts.
"Medical illustration is not just textbooks and today it appears in places that you don't even realize," said Bob Morreale, who heads the Association of Medical Illustrators' Technology and Web Committee. "It's in broadcast, in your doctor's office, in magazines."
There are only 2,000 trained medical illustrators in the United States, the association says. They work in all media (print, animation and 3-D) and for a variety of employers (museums, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, law firms, advertising agencies).
Medical illustrators help make scientific concepts more accessible to the cancer patient, medical student, surgeon or even a jury in a malpractice trial. And yet, the illustrator is equally concerned with color theory and light, said John Daugherty, associate program director of the biomedical visualization graduate program at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
"The science is what separates us from other artists," he said. The 26-piece art exhibit features work by students and faculty in the UIC program. With 17 students, UIC's program is the largest of the five in North America.
The others are at the Medical College of Georgia, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas and the University of Toronto, and they typically have about a half-dozen students.
UIC receives between 40 and 50 applicants annually, Daugherty said, and requirements are rigid. Candidates must show strong evidence that they can handle both the science and the art. Graduates complete roughly the same course work as a first-year medical student, including anatomy.
"We grab up as many of their students as we can," said Alexander Tsiaras, founder and president of Anatomical Travelogue, a health-content producer in New York, whose clients include the National Institutes of Health.
"UIC is the most advanced," said Tsiaras, who has hired a dozen medical illustrators from the UIC program in the last few years. "They have a real foundation in the arts and a real foundation in the technology. We are incredibly impressed," he said.
Started in the 1940s, UIC's program is the second oldest in the country behind Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, which was started by Max Brödel. A German artist recruited to the U.S. by Johns Hopkins doctors in the late 1890s, Brödel is considered the father of medical illustration and has a permanent homage to his legacy on the third floor of the International Museum of Surgical Science.
The medical artist profession can trace its roots to Leonardo da Vinci, but it was only in 1907 that the Mayo Clinic became one of the first medical facilities in the country to employ professional medical artists.
In the 1930s, Frank Netter -- a doctor with artistic skill -- was commissioned to create illustrations of the major organs and their pathology. He created a series of textbooks including the ubiquitous Atlas of Human Anatomy and was later hailed by The New York Times as "The Medical Michelangelo."
One of the fast-growing aspects of medical illustrations is 3-D animation that can be used with online textbooks, on medical Web sites and by doctors who want to go beyond the use of film.
"We're doing the same thing that Pixar is doing, but it's medically based," said Malhotra, whose animated images of flowing lavender-colored particles portraying spinal nerve impulses are on display.
The UIC exhibit is not the first of its kind -- the Mayo Clinic collaborated on a similar exhibit in 2006 called "Scalpel to Sketch" -- and another is planned for Chicago next fall. Vanessa Ruiz, a 2007 UIC biomedical visualization graduate, will curate an exhibit called "Street Anatomy," which will showcase the increasing popularity of human anatomy in pop culture.
"Even if people see illustrations in textbooks it's kind of boring, but seeing it outside of that realm makes it that much more interesting," said Ruiz, who started the blog Street Anatomy (streetanatomy.com) when she was a UIC student.
She is now an associate art director at AbelsonTaylor, a top pharmaceutical advertising agency in Chicago.
Like her Web site, the 2010 exhibit will feature street artists, graffiti artists and tattoo artists.
She chronicles a spike in anatomically correct tattoos, including skeletal images on backs, hearts on chests and vasculatory tracks on arms.
"Anatomy is very much a part of pop culture, and artists are finding innovative ways to portray it every single day," Ruiz writes on her blog.
"I'm constantly amazed by what I find and by what other people send me. Anatomy is not gross, it's not repulsive, it's beautiful. Our anatomy has incredible depth and beauty."
"Redefining the Medical Artist" will be at the International Museum of Surgical Science, 1524 N. Lake Shore Drive, until Oct. 23. For more information about the exhibit go to imss.org/anatgallery.htm.