“There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception.”
― Aldous Huxley
So often, language is hopelessly inadequate. Last night, I found myself profoundly moved and yet despite all my years as a wordsmith and a thinker, I was left stammering unable to communicate.I guess that’s what happens when your doors of perception suddenly swing open, and you have a eureka moment.
I’d been watching a past episode of Ahn’s Brush With Fame where he’d painted and interviewed Professor Fiona Wood, Australian plastic surgeon and burns specialist. Professor Wood and scientist Marie Stoner developed a revolutionary spray-on skin to help burns survivors. This technology was a world-first and has been used on more than 1000 patients around the world. In 2005 they won the Clunies Ross Award (Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering) for their contribution to medical science in Australia. In 2005, Professor Wood was named Australian of the Year.
So, let me bring you into the studio now where Fiona is sitting on Ahn’s distinctive yellow chair. While Ahn’s secretly painting away behind the canvas, Ahn and Fiona’s conversation criss-crossed through her professional and private lives, and there were so many pearls of wisdom. Fiona is such an amazing thinker, and Ahn has a way of drawing people out, although I also understand that painting someone’s portrait tends to do that. Ahn is also deep and profound himself.
“Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen.”
Leonardo Da Vinci.
However, as much as I was touched by much of the interview, there was a particular part of their conversation which stopped me dead in my tracks. Indeed, today I’ve paused and rewound this section many, many times trying to capture the exact wording. With these two kindred’s swept away into their own little skin paradise, pinning down their words wasn’t easy.
The conversation began when Fiona was admiring the other portraits in the studio, particularly their eyes, and it flowed on from there and they started discussing skin, almost as an entity in its own right:
“When I’m trying to teach surgery, it’s like teaching shades of white (Yes) and some people just get white. That it’s a 3D or 2D surface. It’s layered isn’t it? It’s the layers of the system.(Yes! Yes! Yes! It’s not just skin colour) It’s not skin colour. What colour is it? Skin Colour? I mean give me a break.
(As a kid, you get a packet of coloured pencils and there’s one skin colour.) Like nuh (It never works. No. That’s not how people look.)
“Round face, skin colour…Hmm probably not going to fly really.”
(Ahn’s comments are in brackets here. Please forgive my dodgy transcribing.)
As you could imagine, as a burns specialist, Dr Fiona Wood has an exceptionally intimate knowledge and understanding of skin, which flies right over the heads of us mere mortals, including myself. However, her appreciation was not lost on Ahn who has appreciated similar complexities of tone through the lens of an artist…a painter of portraits.
“All our knowledge has its origin in our preceptions.”
Leonardo Da Vinci.
Unfortunately, as much as I love the written word, these black and white words on the screen fail to convey the animated intensity of their conversation. That sense of not only seeing eye-to-eye but soul-to-soul. That rare synergy where you become lovers of the soul and that fusion is just as intense. As Dr Fiona Wood said at the conclusion of the show:
“My highlight today was actually talking about how images go from 2D to 3D and how the light reflects off the skin and how amazing skin is and talking to someone who gets that. Cause skin is amazing.”
Professor Fiona Wood
As a writer or creative person, I’m naturally interested in how other people see and perceive the world, particularly when they re-frame something ordinary and present it through a different lens. I’ve tried with all my might to try and walk in someone else’s shoes. Moreover, I’ve left my own shoes out, hoping someone else would try them on and gain more than just an inkling of the inner me. So, seeing how two people could get so animated and excited about skin and perceive it as more of a complex and detailed landscape than a continuous monotone, intrigued me. I also found it unusual to hear two people discussing skin tone, because it can be a real taboo.
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view — until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
HARPER LEE, To Kill a Mockingbird
Not unsurprisingly, I’d never stopped and appreciated what an artist and plastic surgeon might have in common… a shared fascination with the human body and in this instance skin. Indeed, I’ve never even thought of skin in this way. That’s also interesting to me on a personal level as one of my uncles is a plastic surgeon and another is a dermatologist and this would be familiar territory for them. I also have my own take on skin because my autoimmune disease, dermatomyositis, also affects my skin. However, I’ve never had to think about reconstructing a severely burned body and all that entails. Moreover, when it comes to paint, abstract is my friend. Indeed, I’ve never even considered what goes through the mind of a surgeon who is wanting to reconstruct a severely burned or injured body and trying to get it as close as possible to its “before”. It’s a form of art and yet so much more because the patient’s life and contentment are in their hands. The more you can reduce the scarring, the better the outcome for the patient and Fiona has clearly devoted herself to that end.
So, now I’d like to encourage you to watch this episode for yourself. Even if their discussion on skin doesn’t appeal to you, the are plenty of other pearls to treasure.
I look forward to hearing your thoughts.