By Paul Grondahl
Bill Westwood tells stories in gory detail, narratives filled with blood and guts and lives that hang in the balance.
The Albany, Ga., native and current Albany, N.Y., resident not a horror writer or a graphic novelist enamored of the macabre.
Westwood, a 1964 Albany High School graduate, is a board-certified medical illustrator. He’s toiled for the past 40 years to create striking images of the workings of the human anatomy. He makes pictures of things that go on inside the body that only a powerful microscope or an artist’s imagination can conjure.
“I come in every day excited to get to work,” said Westwood, who keeps a human skeleton in a corner and has a cabinet filled with old bones and medical instruments he uses as studies for sketches.
Westwood, 65, received a lifetime achievement award from the Association of Medical Illustrators at the group’s 65th annual meeting last month in Portland, Ore.
“It was nice to be honored by my peers, but I’m not over the hill yet,” said Westwood, who has no plans to retire.
Both the tools of his trade and his clientele have morphed since the Albany, Ga., native earned a master’s degree in medical illustration from the Medical College of Georgia in 1972.
Westwood spent the first 10 years of his professional life as a staff medical illustrator at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, where he worked closely with surgeons to create meticulous drawings and large-scale models of pioneering medical procedures. He left Mayo in 1982 to strike out on his own as a freelancer and created Westwood Medical Communications. He’s been in the Capital Region since 1990.
Today, because the market has largely dried up for medical illustrations in magazines and for corporate clients, Westwood has re-invented himself as a sort of expert witness in personal injury litigation.
On a recent afternoon, he was in various stages of a half-dozen projects involving personal injury accidents. Working from a thick file of medical X-rays and surgeon’s notes, Westwood creates accurate and visually arresting images of gruesome injuries, from fractured legs to crushed skulls.
“The legal work is not that much different from what I was doing at the Mayo Clinic,” he said. “I’m helping a lay jury understand a complicated injury and surgery, with the help of a lawyer’s explanation.”
If a picture is worth a thousand words when trying to convince a jury, a model is the equivalent of an entire book.
That was the case with a human skull he constructed to depict what happened to a plaintiff’s head that had been bashed in by a log on the end of a backhoe. The worker wore a hard hat and suffered a traumatic brain injury with serious lasting effects.
“All the lawyer had to do was show the jury that skull,” he said. The award was in excess of $1 million.
Westwood has also poured dozens of hours into an eye-popping color painting for the cover of a textbook on human physiology that looks like it belongs on an art gallery wall.
“They’re both satisfying in different ways,” Westwood said. “I’m a visual storyteller. I translate complex procedures into a visual image that average people can understand.”
Over the past four decades, he’s altered the tools of his trade as technology advances. He still sketches by hand with a pencil, then scans the drawings into his computer, where he paints and enhances the image using Photoshop.
“Bill’s art has a doctor’s knowledge and it communicates medical procedures so well,” said artist Dahl Taylor, with whom Westwood shares loft space in a downtown building. “I’m amazed at how he merges the disciplines of medicine and art.”
For Westwood, story is still the driving force.
“I see surgery as a graphic novel,” he said. “My job is to tell a visual story.”
(This article was originally published in the Albany (N.Y.) Times Union. Reprinted with permission.)
PHOTO BY MICHAEL P. FARRELL
Albany, Ga., native Bill Westwood, a medical illustrator who just received the lifetime achievement award from the Association of Medical Illustrators at his studio in Albany, N.Y. Photo used by permission (Albany Times Union).