Connective tissue: Sculptor combines art and medicine to make a better impact on health care, education and patients

By Erica Naone

Morgan Yacoe (B.F.A.’11/A) a conceptual artist and educator who is trained in sculpture and medical science, is dedicated to investigating the relationship between art and medicine.

In the course of her work, she creates highly customized models for medical training purposes, often in collaboration with scientists and surgeons, 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.

Medical residents work with sculptor Morgan Yacoe to practice techniques useful for reconstructive surgery.

Morgan Yacoe (B.F.A.’11/A) guides VCU medical residents in a workshop focused on helping reconstructive surgeons train to shape realistic breasts for survivors of breast cancer. Photo by VCU staff, courtesy of Morgan Yacoe.


For a recent project, Yacoe took a casting of the torso of a woman who had undergone a unilateral mastectomy, meaning she’d had one of her breasts removed because of cancer. Yacoe’s sculptural training shows in the curves and folds of the representation of the woman’s body, in an appearance of softness that suggests life beyond a frozen moment.

But this sculpture also has a medical application because Yacoe used it to teach a workshop at Virginia Commonwealth University 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.

In the end, art and medicine are too aligned to be separated. 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., who taught this workshop alongside Yacoe, stresses the importance of teaching this way rather than reading about breast aesthetics in a book. Rhodes is associate professor in the Division of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery in the VCU School of Medicine and director of the VCU Center for Craniofacial Care at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU.

By designing the models so people can step inside them, Rhodes says, she and Yacoe showed workshop participants, especially the men present, 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 says. “As a patient advocate and an educator, I felt it was a really important thing to try to get through to them.”

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. She began shadowing Rhodes in the operating room and on clinical rounds during her junior year.

Through conversation, the seeds of their first project were planted. In 2011, Rhodes received a call to participate in the separation of the Tapia conjoined twins. She describes a high-pressure scenario, with 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 on a realistic model, as this particular surgery presented unique challenges.

Morgan Yacoe shows the casting she took in preparation for making her model of the Tapia conjoined twins.

Morgan Yacoe (B.F.A.’11/A), 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 by VCU staff, courtesy of Morgan Yacoe.


Rhodes reports that Yacoe responded, “Well, let’s figure it out.” She describes Yacoe as consistently passionate about her work and always positive. Yacoe consulted experts and created the model Rhodes had hoped for. Rhodes could then perform simulation surgery on the realistic model. “So I knew when I said I was ready with the best plan, I meant it,” Rhodes says.

That first project ignited a flurry of ideas for how collaborations along these lines could impact 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 says.

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

Morgan Yacoe and a University of Florida student examine the student's project together.

Morgan Yacoe (B.F.A.’11/A), 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 by University of Florida staff, courtesy of Morgan Yacoe.


They 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 at VCU, Yacoe developed an interdisciplinary studio course for undergraduate students to collaborate with care providers and researchers to find creative solutions to health care problems.

In fall 2017, she began a master of fine arts program at the University of Florida, focusing her research on collaborative art practice. She brought her art and medicine course with her and continues her role as an instructor.

Many of the projects that come out of the course she teaches range far beyond the sort of medical sculpture that launched Yacoe’s collaboration with Rhodes. Yacoe says 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 says.

For example, people recovering from facial burns sometimes wear a silicone garment that applies pressure to the body 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. (M.S.’99/M; M.D.’03/M; H.S.’09/M), 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.

A group of her UF students are collaborating with the university’s biomedical engineering department and the UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital to create an illustrated interactive downloadable application for pediatric patients that explains medical conditions such as type 1 diabetes and heart disease. Some of her students from UF are even collaborating with the medical community at VCU. Her students will soon be presenting their research from this class at conferences across the country.

Yacoe also 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. (D.P.T.’06/HP), 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,” she adds.

Yacoe 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 says.

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