Dragonfly larvae, a cadaver’s arm and encouragement from scientists and artists helped Mark Schornak unite two loves — art and science — into a career as a medical illustrator that’s brought him full circle.
In January, Schornak returned to Carolina, where his artistic talent and curiosity about science first combined during his undergraduate days three decades ago. Schornak works with faculty in the School of Medicine’s neurosurgery department to create compelling visuals for social media, academic journals, research projects and more to benefit patients, surgeons, surgical residents and the field of neurosurgery. He spent the past 30 years illustrating for the Barrow Neurological Institute in Arizona.
Schornak’s art helps doctors plan surgeries on the brain and the body’s many nerves, for endoscopic techniques and for the newest procedure — ultrasound ablation of abnormal tissue to treat movement disorders and tremors. Dr. Nelson Oyesiku, neurosurgery department chair, created the opportunity for Schornak’s return.
Surgeons also use his art to explain diseases and injuries to patients and how they’ll perform a surgery. “Neurosurgery is an extremely visual field,” Schornak said. “Illustrations are a translation to a visual language versus words. They allow surgeons to be very clear in what they say.”
Photographs fall short, he said, because blood or surrounding anatomy can obscure what a surgeon is concentrating on. “Surgeons need to know that right behind the thing they’re working on is something really important. I can show a lot of complicated relationships from a point of view that they don’t see in surgery,” he said.
Schornak’s first image in his new job is an example. Created for Oyesiku, it lights up the normally gray pituitary gland in bright red and enhances its proximity to blood vessels. Such purposefully dramatic art aids the teaching of anatomy and surgical techniques and the understanding of researchers, doctors and patients.
“I’m trying to tell a story about the anatomy and sometimes the surgery,” he said. “There’s probably more named anatomy packed into the head than the rest of the body. Many images online and in medical books are often simplified to aid understanding, but for neurosurgeons and their artists, accuracy is critically important.”
To prepare, he can draw from his experience and knowledge in producing more than 7,000 renderings. Parts of the pituitary image, for example, can be used in dozens of other illustrations. He can “get to a solution five times faster than if I have to begin from scratch, researching it.”
Early in his career, Schornak created illustrations with pens, pencils, ink and watercolors. The field has since become almost entirely digital. He uses Photoshop and sometimes 3D computer modeling to build virtual structures. From those 3D images, he renders his illustrations. If needed, he’ll take a photo then digitally add layers of details and color.
A native of Charlotte, North Carolina, Schornak majored in zoology at Carolina while taking art and art history courses before graduating in 1980.
“I enjoyed science. But I had never considered a future as a professional artist.”
However, an art professor, the late Dennis Zaborowski, saw something in Schornak. Zaborowski lent his student a book on visual perception that influenced the budding artist’s thinking. “He helped me realize I liked art as much as zoology and wanted to explore both sides.”
Schornak’s science classes included an invertebrate zoology course. Illustrations of transparent jellyfish made him think that creating similar art would be fun. Entomology professor Elizabeth McMahan asked Schornak to measure and draw termite mouth parts. She also introduced him to Smithsonian Institution staff, who asked him to collect live dragonfly nymphs from local ponds in exchange for giving Carolina preserved specimens of Australian giant hissing cockroaches. The project connected Schornak with famous Smithsonian science illustrator George Venable, who became a guide.
It was perfect timing. The field of medical illustration was growing as medicine recognized its potential. Schornak attended a national conference on medical illustration and returned to Carolina fired up. Art professor Richard Kinaird connected him with a UNC medical school anatomy instructor, who set him up in an independent study course. The subject?
A cadaver’s arm to dissect and draw.
During nighttime sessions in the school’s anatomy room, Schornak unwrapped the arm, picked up a scalpel and tweezers, dissected and sketched. “The hand is an amazing piece of engineering,” he said. “The tendons divide, with some elegantly slipping beneath others so that you can do things like bend the end of your finger in subtle ways while bending the base of the finger or the whole hand. Muscles far away in your forearm control it all.”
His skill grew, as did his empathy for people and appreciation for human anatomy. “Seeing dead people takes some getting used to,” he said. But the excitement of discovery spurred him on. “I realized that the only way to truly study how the body works is to look past your gut reaction, then it becomes more fascinating.”
After graduating from Carolina, he improved his ability to see and learned new art techniques at the Cleveland Institute of Art and then earned a master’s degree in 1987 from the Medical College of Georgia.
Over the years, he’s received praise and awards for his art in service to science, sometimes from people in parts of the world with limited access to anatomical material. “I also get a lot of ‘you didn’t get it quite right,’ too, but usually from the surgeon I’m working with because they’ve done this for years, and it’s often the first time I’ve seen it. I love it when brilliant neurosurgeons pore over my work, teaching me new concepts.”
Schornak and his wife, medical and botanical illustrator Deborah Ravin, are eager to explore Chapel Hill’s natural areas. He’s also interested in developing a medical illustration certificate program or a graduate degree program.