• Jena Martin MD


This is not a medical condition, although it sure does sound like one.

Ekphrasis is any sort of writing about art. It's a word I never heard until I encountered it in a recent online writing class.

For that class, I wrote about Francis Bacon - a favorite artist of mine, and in many ways he seems like an artist lots of pathologists would like. You can find the painting I wrote about here: https://francis-bacon.com/artworks/paintings/study-portrait-3 Here is that essay:

We met in the museum, him with his distorted face and me with my own internal distortions.

Inside I gasp: “How did he know?”

As a child I used to want only hyperrealistic paintings. I glorified the skill of being a camera and scorned crude emotionality. I took a class where I held up a plumb line to make sure I accurately transcribed the still life onto the canvas.

But the trick of life is that reality can be more than we see.

This artist knows: me and him, we’re both grotesque and raw.

Francis Bacon. His bodies are wrestling inside their frames, and this one gazes out at me. He thinks he’s on top, leaning back in his office chair to take me in. I see the reality: he’s trapped within some office hell.

I think of “Mad Men”, desperate within the chauvinistic skyscrapers. He’s crushed by it just as I am.

The window blinds appear to be melting along with his face; I imagine in a moment the walls will crash down to reveal a raging fire outside.

I have always prided myself as someone who bridged the worlds of art and pathology, and I’ve finally found the bridge to take me there - ekphrastic writing.

Pathologists endlessly talk about how we are too siloed behind our microscopes. The irony is this conversation happens… with other pathologists. Pathologists don’t seem to be aware that the degree of specificity and minutia we compile can feel a bit like we are fiddling while Rome burns.

Maybe Ekphrastic writing - about the things I see - is a bridge across the divide. For an example, in my recent writing class I described a leiomyoma, also known as a fibroid, as part of larger essay. An essay that examines ideas of natural and nature; we, I believe, are entirely 'natural', with all of those connotation. A classmate remarked she had never read anything like this excerpt (in a good way)

"White and firm, it grows like a bespoke basket, cords of cells roughly woven together in whorls. When cut, it expands, each slice bulging out like The Hulk, never to be put back together again. This tumor is completely yours, but also it could be from anyone. Removed from you, laid out on the cutting board, we print labels and stick your name all over it so we can bill you for it, but this tumor belongs to biology. To nature. “

What do you think? Do you think the world is ready for writing about tumors and disease like art?

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The patient can’t find the words, but his condition needs a name and that’s where I come in.

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