NORTH ADAMS -- Laura Thompson stands in front of a larger-than-life size model heart, which simulates a heartbeat with the push of a button. As the curator for Mass MoCA's Kidspace, she describes her aim to cross the line between art and the sciences.
"We try to talk to kids about other skills that are important in science. What did it take to make this heart? A graphic designer, a model maker all sorts of artistic skill sets," she said.
Thompson chose two British artists who work with medical equipment to produce works of art for the new Kidspace exhibit "It's Only Human," which runs through May 2015.
The exhibit pairs Nick Veasey, who creates full-scale x-rays of everything from motorcycles to buses, and Marilène Oliver, who uses digital MRI and CTI body scans to create striking sculptures.
Looking beyond the scientific procedures involved in the work, Thompson explained, the goal is to allow children to explore the beautiful components of science, not strictly teach them facts.
"Our intention is not for kids to learn the number of bones in the body but to learn about artists using the human body to showcase the beauty inside," she said.
Positive body image, she said, is also one of the main themes of the exhibition.
"A lot of the themes I choose are timely or give children further opportunities to engage in a topic. We talk about the theme with school groups and kids that come in, and in this case we use the art to explain we all have uniqueness and similarities," Thompson said.
Veasey also said his x-ray work is a clear metaphor for looking past the exterior.
"Beauty is more than the surface. You're only truly happy when you're with your loved ones, not focused on [superficial things]. It's what's on the inside that counts," he said.
"Now that I live in Angola, skin color is a reality I'm faced with," she said. "A scanned body equalizes people because you don't know what their outside looks like.
Although promoting body equality was not her work's initial intention, it became an effect of the digitalized body scans. In them each body looks identical to the next.
Both artists work with Photoshop and radiology software. Oliver uses anonymized data sets of scanned human bodies to create a digital print, which she can then transfer to fabric or paper or laser-cut into other materials.
Her whimsical "Dirvishes" are colorful body scans printed on organza and arranged in a mobile-like formation.
While living in Brazil, Oliver drew from local history and churches to create "Totem Poles," three sets of stacked heads, open at the top to expose their insides, each flecked with gold, butterfly wings, or rhinestone rubies.
She created "Protest" after an immigrant, in protest of being deported, committed suicide. "Protest" is stunning to see, a floating bust of paper strips that wind down into spilled ribbon intestines. The end result remains more beautiful than graphic.
"It's a heavy subject matter, but materials-wise one of the most accessible to children, whether or not they know the backstory," Oliver said.
Veasey, on the other hand, works strictly with digital tools to create massive x-rays, and he is credited with creating the world's largest when he x-rayed a Boeing-777 plane. For work with the human body, he uses a cadaver whose body was donated to science, so as not to expose living models to large amounts of radiation. After taking multiple x-rays of his subjects, which he times longer than a standard medical x-ray in order to get more definition in the picture, Veasey uses Photoshop to arrange the different shots into the final product.
His work included in "It's Only Human" is imaginative, ethereal, and sometimes humorous. A popular favorite has been "Superman," a holographic x-ray that changes from a skeletal version of the famed superhero to his alter-ego, Clark Kent, depending on the viewer's angle.
"My work is pretty immediate," Veasey said. "Kids like it because they get it."
The exhibit also includes Kidspace's ArtBar, transformed into a laboratory-like affair complete with "lab attendants" in white coats. Visitors can choose a first-aid box filled with a "design your own brain" kit, or pick a real x-ray of a hand or foot to trace. It's purposeful art making, Thompson said -- not merely a craft area.
"Every intention is to give another way to access the main art and theme of the exhibit," she said. "We've had a lot of people spending a long time in here."
Grace Janzow, a Mass MoCA Education Department intern, explained that while people assume Kidspace is only for kids, their actual audience is highly varied.
"Two teenage girls came in the other day and made bracelets in the ArtBar for two hours. Parents come into the exhibit with their kids and get just as much out of it. [Kidspace] is really a hidden gem," she said.
"Kids should see great art and have meaningful conversations," Thompson added. "Kidspace is not a playground. It's an introductory version of the main galleries. The art might hang a bit lower, and we have the ArtBar, but other than that there's no difference [from the rest of the museum]. It's a playful look at serious concepts."
If you go...
What: 'It's Only Human,'
the work of Marilène Oliver
and Nick Veasey
When: Now through May 2015; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday; 10 a.m.
to 7 p.m. Thursday to Saturday
Where: Mass MoCA's Kidspace, North Adams
Admission: Free for Kidspace;
$18 for adults and $10 for kids for the rest of the museum