Alumna's sculpture creations explore the connective tissue between art and medicine

Morgan Yacoe, second from left, guides VCU medical residents in a workshop focused on helping rec...
Morgan Yacoe, second from left, guides VCU medical residents in a workshop focused on helping reconstructive surgeons train to shape realistic breasts for survivors of breast cancer. (Photo courtesy of Morgan Yacoe)

Morgan Yacoe, a conceptual artist and educator who is trained in sculpture and medical science, is dedicated to investigating the relationship between art and medicine.

She creates highly customized models for medical training, often in collaboration with scientists and surgeons. She also teaches and develops classes and workshops for both art and medical students, creates figurative sculptures based on her collaborative experiences, and travels to medical conferences and art conferences to present papers on her interdisciplinary research.

For a recent project, Yacoe, a 2011 graduate of the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts, made a casting of the torso of a woman who had a breast removed because of cancer. Yacoe’s sculptural training shows in the curves and folds of the representation of the woman’s body, in the softness that suggests life beyond a frozen moment.

However, this sculpture also had a medical application. Yacoe used it to teach a workshop at VCU to medical residents practicing breast reconstructive surgery. She presented the class with castings of the sculpture and guided them as they sculpted the missing breast into place.

Yacoe describes the breast as “a difficult form with lots of subtleties.” In the context of helping a patient recovering from breast cancer, mastering the art and aesthetics of the situation becomes a key part of providing healing

Yacoe’s longtime collaborator, Jennifer Rhodes, M.D., associate professor in the Division of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery in the VCU School of Medicine, who taught the workshop alongside Yacoe, stresses the importance of teaching this way rather than reading about breast aesthetics in a book.

By designing the models so people can step inside them, Rhodes said, she and Yacoe showed workshop participants, especially the men, what women see when they look down at their bodies.

“That’s one of the most important perspectives to get right, and it was just totally missing from their current education,” Rhodes said. “As a patient advocate and an educator, I felt it was a really important thing to try to get through to them.”

Yacoe, right, teaches a student in her “Art, Body, Health” class at the University of Florida how to cast resin to look like realistic teeth as part of a project to build a pediatric mouth model. (Photo courtesy of Morgan Yacoe)
Yacoe, right, teaches a student in her “Art, Body, Health” class at the University of Florida how to cast resin to look like realistic teeth as part of a project to build a pediatric mouth model. (Photo courtesy of Morgan Yacoe)

Conjoined twins


Getting at these sorts of implications of reconstructive surgery has always been important to Rhodes, and in Yacoe’s work she sees the potential to fill a gap between current training methods and the deeply human connection between health care practitioners and their patients.

The pair began collaborating almost 10 years ago when Yacoe was an undergraduate student at VCU. She saw the “very natural” overlap between sculpture and reconstructive surgery and contacted Rhodes. During Yacoe’s junior year, she began shadowing Rhodes in the operating room and on clinical rounds.

In 2011, Rhodes received a call to participate in the separation of a pair of conjoined twins, which involved an extremely complex multidisciplinary surgical plan and a high level of media attention. She confided to Yacoe that she wished she could plan the surgery, which presented unique challenges, on a realistic model.

Rhodes said that Yacoe responded, “Well, let’s figure it out.” Yacoe consulted experts and created a model on which Rhodes could then perform simulation surgery. “So I knew when I said I was ready with the best plan, I meant it,” Rhodes said.

That first project ignited a flurry of ideas for how collaborations along those lines could affect education and patient care.

“We would sit and just brainstorm and think, how can we create workshops and associated physical sculptures that would help residents become more observant in their fields and also gain more surgical technique,” Yacoe said.

That evolved into many projects, some of which have been presented at conferences in both fields, such as the congress of the World Society for Simulation Surgery and the College Art Association annual conference.

The two also worked together to teach workshops and classes at VCU, such as a sculpting and drawing class for surgery residents and medical students. As an adjunct instructor, Yacoe developed an interdisciplinary studio course for undergraduate students to collaborate with care providers and researchers to find creative solutions to health care problems.

For example, people recovering from facial burns sometimes wear a silicone garment that applies pressure and helps with healing. One group of Yacoe’s VCU students worked with the director of the Evans-Haynes Burn Center at VCU, Michael Feldman, M.D., to create a prototype of a custom pressure mask for a pediatric patient. They used a combination of traditional sculpting techniques and 3D scanning technology to fit the patient’s facial shape and personality, painting the mask pink and adorning it with ribbons.

Yacoe, left, displays an alginate casting she took of Tapia conjoined twins, which she used to build a surgical model that her collaborator, Jennifer Rhodes, M.D., could use to prepare for her role in the separation surgery. (Photo courtesy of Morgan Yacoe)
Yacoe, left, displays an alginate casting she took of Tapia conjoined twins, which she used to build a surgical model that her collaborator, Jennifer Rhodes, M.D., could use to prepare for her role in the separation surgery. (Photo courtesy of Morgan Yacoe)

Bringing art and medicine together


In fall 2017, Yacoe started working toward a master of fine arts at the University of Florida, focusing her research on collaborative art practice. She also teaches her art and medicine course.

Yacoe said she encourages her students to find their unique voice and niche within the intersection of art and medicine.

“The goal of these courses is to teach undergraduate premedical students and art students to work together across discipline boundaries to use art to improve the practice of medicine by promoting creativity within both fields,” Yacoe said.

She continues to work with medical professionals at both UF and VCU, while drawing on these experiences to create sculptures. A recent collaboration involved working with Santosh Kale, M.D., assistant professor of surgery in the VCU School of Medicine, and Peter Pidcoe, D.P.T., Ph.D., director of the Engineering and Biomechanics Lab at VCU, to create an advanced microsurgery trainer, a model that would help surgery residents practice techniques such as connecting blood vessels. Yacoe created the model with realistic tissue layers, watching Kale’s surgeries as a guide. Pidcoe constructed a pump that simulates blood flow and blood pressure levels.

Though now 700 miles away in Florida, Yacoe travels to Virginia for important events such as the first time medical residents tested the trainer.

Rhodes looks forward to seeing Yacoe’s projects, such as the advanced microsurgery trainer, being used by medical schools.

“I’m excited to see where she’s going in her career and the contribution she’s going to make,” Rhodes said.

Yacoe said she plans to continue seeking ways to bring her chosen fields of art and medicine together.

“Built on collaboration and working together and an opening of creative channels, we can build within both the fields really beautifully,” she said.