VISUAL ARTS | Caitlin Karolczak: The beauty of disease


Artist Caitlin Karolczak’s new show at Design within Reach Studio, entitled Past + Present: An Artist Viewing, explores the beauty of disease and the human body. Much of Karolczak’s work is inspired by vintage medical photographs.

past + present: an artist viewing, an exhibit of work by caitlin karolczak. on display through january 23 at design within reach, 2939 hennepin ave. s., minneapolis. admission free. for information, see

Karolczak said at the show’s opening that she is drawn to vintage medical drawings because, unlike drawings in modern textbooks, which show isolated body parts or human figures devoid of any personality, older drawings add character to the subjects. Karolczak has a collection of such drawings, many of them from the 19th century, which were mostly drawn by anonymous artists who went beyond clinical detail to depict, for example, the sorrow of a dying patient or the isolation of a patient with a birth defect.

A classically trained painter, Karolczak incorporates meticulously painted reproductions of the found images juxtaposed with abstract backgrounds and unfinished details. Repose depicts a morose-looking girl whose legs are deformed. The girl is seated in a desert, with an animal’s skull at her feet, and two severed heads with wings lifting a shroud over her head. While the figure of the girl is extremely detailed, other parts of the painting use simplified texture and color, as if the horizon looms without a clear future. Karolczak is able to capture the emotion of this young girl, a dull ennui, as the girl solemnly looks toward death.

Another piece in the show is Evado, a nude portrait of a woman in profile. The woman glances sideways at the viewer, as if catching us watching her. She is stooped over and has bandages on her neck and back. The woman’s hand seems to disappear into the gray background, and her face is in shadow. We are drawn in to the vulnerability of the character, but the bandages—which are the brightest elements in the painting—jar us. The image has a confrontational quality, as if the woman herself is pushing us away.

Another disturbing portrait, We are made a Spectacle onto the Earth, depicts a young boy whose arm is deformed. The boy, who stands in portrait, has the face of someone much older, and he looks wearily before him. On his ribcage, beneath layers of paint, are words, barely visible. Similar words, barely readable, hover over his head. The boy’s face glows: he is almost cherubic. It is as if he is barely here on earth.

Today’s medical textbooks have nothing like the images that Karolczak reproduces in her paintings. Perhaps we don’t need to know the emotions of a patient if we want to learn how to cure a disease—but the vintage images of medical texts gone by did contain something human, something beautiful. Karolczak’s work evokes the vulnerability and fear in those vintage images, and grasps at the emotions of patients dealing with disease, trauma, and injury.

Sheila Regan is a theater artist based in Minneapolis. When not performing or writing, she serves as educational coordinator for Teatro del Pueblo.