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'Gross Clinic' in 3-D

Students at Swarthmore College reimagine the Thomas Eakins masterpiece with cardboard, hot glue and exuberant teamwork.

Art Professor, Logan Grider stands in front of the large 3D sculpture of the Gross Clinic at  Swarthmore College.  (Akira Suwa / Staff Photographer )
Art Professor, Logan Grider stands in front of the large 3D sculpture of the Gross Clinic at Swarthmore College. (Akira Suwa / Staff Photographer )Read moreINQ SUWA

It rises 16 feet in the air, stretching toward the skylighted ceiling of the studio in Old Tarble Hall on the Swarthmore College campus.

It is black and creepy. Skeletal fingers reach out toward anyone passing by. Beheaded bodies rise from the top and disembodied arms float near the center. A foot-long scalpel thrusts out, arming a confident Dr. Samuel Gross, the same Samuel Gross memorialized in Thomas Eakins' great 1875 painting, The Gross Clinic.

But in this Swarthmore rendering, Dr. Gross has heft and weight. He holds his knife like a weapon, and his demeanor reminds a viewer of George Washington at an unpleasant moment.

Yet there is no mistaking it. This giant work of art - more than twice the size of the original, now jointly owned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts - takes off from The Gross Clinic. Students have replicated, if that's the word, Eakins' imagery and composition, and blown it up into modern space.

"It's more about the feeling of the composition," said painter Logan Grider, an assistant professor of art at the college, and the man who assigned his studio-art freshmen the seemingly impossible task of rendering the Eakins masterpiece in 3-D.

In cardboard. With hot glue.

The students even had homework: Photocopying their own faces multiple times and then pasting together cutout parts to form Gross images.

The whole thing took about two weeks to model and assemble, different classes working on the same project in the morning and in the afternoon. Sometimes work done at 11 a.m. would be dismantled and reworked at 3 p.m. And vice versa.

"They moved my head!" said Temple Price, a 19-year-old from Birmingham, Ala. Price had fashioned the head of Eakins, who painted himself into the background of the original. But someone in another class had switched heads. Price looked up at his shrunken Eakins, now oddly deformed, as if shriveled by jungle voodoo.

"It's tiny," he said, "and my head was enormous. They ripped my hand off too. But I think I kept it civil."

Grider's classes benefited from studying the Eakins work in Michael W. Cothren's art history class and from being able to see the actual painting, currently on view at the academy. Mark S. Tucker, senior conservator of paintings and vice chair of conservation at the Art Museum, also visited the class and discussed his work on the painting.

Perhaps most remarkably, the students visited the Inova Heart and Vascular Institute near Washington to observe and sketch open-heart surgery.

"They drew from a double-bypass surgery," said Grider.

The Gross Clinic, of course, depicts the great Philadelphia innovator performing surgery on a leg. It was considered by many to be far too bloody and realistic when it was first exhibited at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876. But alumni of Jefferson Medical College, where Gross was a beloved faculty member, acquired the canvas and donated it to their school. It remained there until 2006, when Jefferson University decided to sell it - an announcement that spurred a huge public fund-raising campaign culminating in its joint acquisition by the academy and Art Museum.

Carolyn Corbin, an 18-year-old from York, Pa., drew a very detailed image of the operating theater at Inova during the visit there, part of the assignment. In her rendering, the operation is dominated by massive lights and machines.

Despite the dominance of technology, "you could actually see the heart," she said.

"It was just a blue slit. The only time I got a little queasy was when I was trying to eat a sandwich and look at the heart at the same time."

But the experience was an important one for the work back in the Swarthmore studio. The relief is made from a week's worth of the college's cast-off cardboard boxes and containers. Hands, heads, and body parts are constructed from pieces held together with hot glue. One arm alone could be composed of as many as 500 or 600 bits of paper.

Some background is simply painted, and three-dimensional figures are also painted, to enhance the modeling.

Grider said the most difficult aspect of the project was sculpting "soft things in the round," such as shoulders.

Corbin, who worked on the top of the giant relief, said it was not easy to create the proper perspective.

Julia Carleton, 18, from Cincinnati said she worked on Gross' head, modeling and remodeling, and then painting it to give it the prominence Eakins gave it in the original.

She also worked on a head over Gross' shoulder. But one of the other classes obliterated her work with a flat black space. As Carleton gazed up on the whole, pointing at the now-flat area, she shook her head and laughed.

"What were they thinking?" she said.

Grider said the Red Grooms-esque quality of the relief was a product of materials, the students' lack of familiarity with sculpting in cardboard, and the short time allocated for the project. And, he added, "some of the cartooniness comes from playfulness and exploring the strange compositional decisions Eakins made."

Now the giant relief is heading to the Dumpsters from whence its materials came. The experience of creation was the point.

Carleton and other students see a kind of comic savagery in the work at this final stage.

"When I saw the painting, I realized it was sort of cannibalistic," she said. "There's the bright color of blood with people hunched over the table picking at it . . . like lions hunched over their prey."