Adrienne Alison

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Adrienne Alison, BSc’81, is an artist with deep family roots in medicine, best known for her War of 1812 monument in front of the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa. In Toronto, she is well regarded for her nuanced work at the intersection of art and medicine. She was one of only five students accepted annually to the U of T Biomedical Communications program, where she gained understanding of anatomy by dissecting a complete cadaver with her first year medical classmates. After graduating from the Faculty of Medicine’s Biomedical Communications program, she established and operated the Head and Neck Prosthetic Clinic at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Center. At one time, she was the sole fabricator of finger prostheses in Canada.

Personal Story

Q&A with Adrienne Alison: Reflections on Art and Science

Why did you choose to study U of T’s Biomedical Communications program?

I did an undergraduate degree in Art History and Studio Arts and I wanted to continue to learn. I grew up around science. My aunt and grandmother were both doctors trained at U of T. 

My Aunt Ruth (my father's sister) was an Oncologist at Princess Margaret Hospital, Toronto and did a lot of the original chemotherapy drug trials. She was the first doctor and first female to be the President of the Canadian Cancer Society. This was during the time Terry Fox did his run. She was quite an accomplished doctor in her specialty and in her personal life. 

My grandmother, Dr. Isabel Ayer, was an Obstetrician and Gynecologist and one of the founding doctors of the Women’s College Hospital.  I chose U of T because it has the only program of its kind in Canada; there’s one other in the United States but nowhere else in the world. I loved the combination of learning about science and doing art.

I had fabulous teachers at U of T, they were rigorous; they were specific down to the type of pencil you should use. I think that you have the rest of your life to experiment, but when you’re in school you should be learning all you can from your professors.

What are you doing now?

I am sculpting full time and also painting. The fact that the U of T program included full cadaver dissection gave me a good grounding in human physiology that has served me well. Even now, I rely on my knowledge of anatomy in painting and sculpture. I am able to sculpt from the inside out; I think of the tissue of the body first. Even when I sculpt an animal, I sometimes get a vet to lend me a skeleton so I understand the structure underneath the fur. Structure is key in sculpture; the public can tell with the eye that something is off, even if they can’t tell exactly what it is.

Having a thorough knowledge of anatomy allows me to spend more time on the spirit and personality of the subject. Without structure the sculpture is dead. For example, in war sculptures you see often see a female figure with her head down in shroud or a veil; she did not fight in the war; she is a metaphor for what went on, and you know exactly how she’s feeling. You need to have excellent structure to bring out the spirit of the figurative pose.

The sculpture that I am most proud of is of C.W. Jefferys which is in Hog’s Hollow here in Toronto. He was a lot of fun to sculpt. He was asked to be part of the Group of Seven but was much more interested in depicting history in his art. He has 50 paintings in the National Gallery.

In what ways do you think your work has inspired or affected others?

I think the figure is not dead; you can always glean something out of the figure. Sometimes in the quest for being modern, some think the figure is old fashioned, but I try to maintain high standards in depicting accurate anatomy, expression through gesture, and subtlety of movement. I hope I inspire others to take a rigorous approach to these too.

I find that in sculpting, as in medicine, you have to think quickly, but you have to keep to going until it gets done. It reminds me of a 14 hour surgical operation; you are using your skills and knowledge but you also use creativity. It’s a visual thing, its rhythm, like music. In sculpture, you have to direct the viewer’s eye around the piece; the negative space is as important as the positive.

What words of wisdom would you like to share with current and future students?

Science and art often complement each other, it’s amazing how many doctors love music or are great dancers, and it’s clear to me that there’s a connection there. My advice is that if you can enjoy both art and science, then you should, because they feed each other. There are certain parts of the brain that are used in both art and science. We have segregated these things to make them easier to digest, but you don’t need to, life is not black and white.

Often the artist can offer an explanation that a scientist cannot, or a scientist can develop tools and materials or systems that the artist can use; each sees it through a different lens and they feed each other. Take for example Leonardo DaVinci who was a sculptor, a painter, a mathematician, an architect; he was successful at all these things because they complement each other.  So don’t limit yourself!


Biography text:

Photo taken on 6 November 2015, provided courtesy of Adrienne Alison.


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