The new exhibition in Sunderland which uses cell specimens as art to open up discussions on women's health

Two artists who underwent major surgery have magnified and interpreted images of their cells to create a thought-provoking exhibition which merges art with science.

Thursday, 3rd October 2019, 4:59 pm

Following in the footsteps of the hugely-successful Da Vinci exhibition in Sunderland and his ground-breaking anatomical drawings, Rachel Cochrane and Maggie Hickman Smith worked closely with pathology labs at Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Gateshead, and University Hospital of North Tees, Stockton for their Women: a Cartography exhibition.

The display, which is on show at Arts Centre Washington, is a mixed media exhibition of creative work inspired by the cellular pathology specimens from the hysterectomy and double mastectomy of Rachel and Maggie and is aimed at opening up discussions about women’s health.

For the artists it’s a deeply personal insight into their battles with health and how their operations affected them both physically and psychologically.

Rachel Cochrane (left) and Maggie Hickman-Smith at their "Women :a Cartography" exhibition exhibition held at Arts Centre Washington

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Last November, mum of two Maggie, 68, underwent the trauma of a double mastectomy at University Hospital of North Tees after being diagnosed with breast cancer. Shortly before her diagnosis she’d met mum-of-two Rachel, 58, at a creative networking event who was looking to use her creative side to document her journey with a hysterectomy 10 years ago.

Together, they combined their visual arts and writing talents to create the mixed media exhibition after being granted permission by the hospital trusts to obtain images of the cells from their illnesses.

Rachel, whose work includes images of her cells magnified 70 times the size, explained: “Predominantly, what I was interested in was taking something which is unseen and microscopic and making it huge.”

Maggie added: “We made contact with the pathology services who loved the idea of the exhibition. It helps to make public what goes on in labs, what they do, the diagnoses they make, it saves lives. Yet the work they do is often unseen and unrecognised. The biomedical scientists have been incredibly helpful and supportive.”

Maggie Hickman Smith with some of her work from the new exhibition

As part of the project, the women were given tours of the labs – Rachel worked with pathologist Dr Kate Macdougall at QEH, Gateshead and Maggie worked with pathologist Dr Kaushik Dasgupta at UHNT, Stockton – as they interpreted their own cells in different ways.

Maggie used the pink and purple dyes used in labs, as well as pieces of lace given to her by other people affected by cancer, to create interpretive artworks depicting the changes cells go through, which ultimately determines changes within ourselves.

Meanwhile, Rachel magnified the images of her cells, signs from lab walls and labels from HRT packages to create her digital media artworks. Both also look at their journeys as mothers, from the birth of a grandchild to children leaving the nest, in the display.

Rachel said: “It was a surreal experience to look down a microscope and view parts of my own body. I was able to glimpse a world of the beautiful patterns and colours of disease, invisible to the naked eye and largely unseen to those outside the laboratory.”

Rachel Cochrane with images of her cells

The artists hope the exhibition will ultimately encourage other women to talk more openly about their health. A board which forms part of the display also gives people the chance to write down their own experiences with cancer.

Maggie said: “I hope that our exhibition will bring some understanding of the ways we have tackled our diagnoses and will underpin the importance of those regular mammograms and smear tests we dread but which build a personal, unique history of our bodies which can be vital to our lives.”

:: Women: a Cartography is on display at Arts Centre Washington until October 26. Entry is free.

Part of the Rachel Cochrane art work on display
Part of Maggie Hickman Smith's art work
The artists visited labs as part of the display
Woman: a Cartography is on display until October 26.