PEMBROKE — Artist Maria Modlin wears her heart on her sleeve — or more specifically, microscopic images representing heart disease.
The Greenville textile artist designs dresses and jewelry using patterns based on the destructive cells that form cancer, diabetes and other diseases. A collection of her work, entitled “Wearing Our Insides Out: Women’s Health and Art,” is currently on display at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke.
“I put the series together in large part to be educational,” Modlin said. “A lot of people don’t know what they’re looking at to begin with, so it’s interesting to watch them go up to the pieces. They want to wear them until they read the information associated with the art, then they back up and go ‘oh, that’s what this is…’”
A native of Jamesville, Modlin is a graduate of East Carolina University’s Fine Arts in Textiles program and works as a webmaster in the college’s Art Department. “Wearing Our Insides Out” originated from her thesis and premiered at East Carolina University in 2008.
The collection has since been displayed several times at the university and was featured as part of the Ghost Fleet Gallery in Nags Head last summer.
On Feb. 27, Robert Canida, director of the Multicultural Center at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, sent out a mass email asking his colleagues to suggest any female artists who might be interested in having their work shown on campus.
Modlin was recommended by her longtime friend Margie Labadie, who serves as the university’s Digital Academy coordinator. After looking through some photos of Modlin’s biological art, Canida decided she was a perfect fit. The exhibit opened on March 14.
“Her work is amazing,” he said. “It’s an exhibit that you really have to see to believe, and we hope that it doesn’t leave campus without being seen by the majority of our faculty, staff and students.”
Though images depicting the building blocks of disease are commonly associated with the unfeeling lens of a microscope, an emotional undercurrent runs through much of Modlin’s work.
One of the exhibit’s earliest creations, a necklace adorned with blood glucose test strips and syringes packed with shredded cash, was inspired by Modlin’s sister, who has Type 1 diabetes.
“She had a very hard time getting insurance coverage when she came home in 1998 because, at the time, the companies wouldn’t cover preexisting conditions,” she said. “Testing strips cost about $1 a piece and insulin is very expensive. Before Obamacare, insurance companies were only required to cover up to $1,000.”
Modlin began the project by matching illnesses with related articles of clothing — a bra festooned with the invading cells of breast cancer, for example — but eventually changed her direction to reflect the universal reach of certain diseases.
“It helps people identify with what others are battling, and a lot of people have been interested in that message,” she said.
Many of the dresses featured in the exhibit don’t immediately register as unusual from a distance. In fact, the pleats made to resemble varicose veins and speckles of red standing in for cervical cancer cells simply look fashionable from a few feet away.
According to Modlin, that’s part of the point.
“If you look at the cells themselves, they’re actually beautiful images. They’re just very destructive,” she said. “Considering this dichotomy is what we as human beings deal with in our everyday lives, seeing both the beautiful and the ugly.”