Photo by Chris Smith
The selectors said: “Yacoe’s collaboration with the VCU Medical Center demonstrates a truly innovative direction for the application of fine-art skills outside the proverbial white cube of the exhibition space. Artists are — among many other characteristics — ingenious problem solvers. Yacoe’s work demonstrates this in full. The lessons in tactility, materiality and observation afforded to surgeons through the lens of sculpture are the start of something big.”
Handprints covered the otherwise perfectly white model of conjoined twins that Morgan Yacoe delivered to VCU Medical Center pediatric and craniofacial plastic surgeon Dr. Jennifer Rhodes. The artist and the medical specialist had teamed up during the past four years, and this was the second sculpture Yacoe had created to aid in preparing for a physical separation. On that day in March 2013, she’d come directly from a foundry where she was assisting Jesse Burrowes, a VCU instructor and sculptor, with a commission of cast iron chairs — thus the handprints.
After developing her artistic skills as a high school student in Northern Virginia and in college at Boston University, Yacoe transferred to Virginia Commonwealth University, where she chose to study pre-med in addition to sculpture. The intense work of the studio, followed by studying formulas and covalent bonding, energized her. “The classes got harder and harder, and I got into organic chemistry and advanced sculpture — and I loved it.”
In 2010, Yacoe decided she wanted to shadow a doctor. She singled out Rhodes, and shortly thereafter, stood alongside as the surgeon and her team worked to repair a 2-month-old girl’s cleft lip.
Rhodes’ fine motor skills deeply impressed Yacoe, as well as the surgeon’s recognition of the effect of each incision on the infant’s face. “Her processes are very similar to how artists think in terms of form and proportion — but in this case, actually on a living being.”
Likewise intrigued by Yacoe’s field of sculpture, Rhodes asked her to create a mold of conjoined twins that would allow a better understanding of the procedure necessary to separate them.
Yacoe began by investigating what materials to use. She used plaster for the casting and silicone skin and a foam core for the model. Silicone is a tricky material. If it’s too cold, the material won’t set well, and if another chemical is present, it will cause imperfections. After some experimentation, she devised the right elasticity for the silicone.
In September 2011, a couple of months before undergoing the surgery to separate them, conjoined twins Maria and Teresa Tapia underwent anesthesia, primarily to implant tissue expanders that are basically inserted balloons that expand over time, stretching the skin and creating more of it from the abdominal wall defect. About 30 minutes before that procedure, Yacoe did the casting of their bodies. She made a two-part plaster mold — and then didn’t know what came next.
Rhodes needed the model prior to the November separation surgery. Yacoe felt the pressure of time getting short and the need to add the tissue expander component. “It was extremely challenging,” she says. “I broke down a couple of times.”
One of the most satisfying days was bringing in the model to Rhodes’ office, sawing it in half and inserting the tissue expanders, “And it was all over in an hour.” The separation went well, and the collaboration of the artist and surgeon was recorded in a paper published in the Journal of Craniofacial Surgery and presented in New Orleans.
Afterward, Yacoe traveled to Argentina, where she spent two weeks shadowing a plastic surgeon at a pediatric hospital in Buenos Aires. When she returned, Rhodes asked her to build a mold for another set of conjoined twins. The artist wanted to use another material to better capture skin detail and cover more surface area, and decided to try a material called Alginate. Yacoe built clay sculptures of the twins to test the casting. This followed taking measurements for custom boxes to fit around their bodies to pour in the Alginate.
The experimentation worked. After presenting the handprint-stained model to Rhodes, she returned to the foundry.
In March, Yacoe and Rhodes presented a TEDxRVA talk about combining their expertise to bring an artistic aesthetic to reconstructive medicine. Yacoe’s other recent endeavors include making models for surgery residents to practice skin flap designs and creating molds of the uterus to assist in gynecological surgery. Through a VCU fellowship, she’s developing breast models to allow doctors to practice ultrasound and fine-needle aspiration.
But she is also interested in ways of carrying over the materials used to make functional medical models into more permanent work. “Medical models get torn up,” she says. “Bronze is the opposite of that.”
A year ago, she received a commission from the mother of a deceased son for a memorial piece that proved to be a challenge. The process began by making a death mask of his face that evolved into the casting of a bronze bust. The man’s mother periodically visited Yacoe’s studio to see if she’d recognize her son in the work. And at last she did. In this way, Yacoe connected with what art in the ancient sense is about: preserving memory against time.