GIA MAZUR / PUBLISHED: AUGUST 27, 2017
Dr. Susan Summerton is an expert at reading the language of the human body.
It had much more to say than she realized.
As a radiologist, Summerton diagnoses and treats diseases and injuries through medical-imaging techniques such as ultrasounds, CT scans, MRI, X-rays and more. But along with fractures, sprains and masses, Summerton saw other shapes in the images outside of a medical context — like the letter “Y,” a sheepdog, the word “odd” and even the head of Homer Simpson.
“Certain things would just jump out at me,” Summerton said during a recent afternoon in her office at Delta Medix Breast Care Center in downtown Scranton. “Some people don’t see that stuff, but I would catch letters and shapes. It’s like seeing pictures in the clouds in the sky.”
Science becomes art
Summerton’s unique perspective culminated in the business Xray Artistry, through which she creates pieces of art using letters and shapes she saw in medical images. A life-long Philadelphia resident who moved to Scranton to work at Delta Medix in March, she will show her works during her debut First Friday show, “Body Language,” on Friday, Sept. 1, from 6 to 9 p.m. at Scranton Cultural Center at The Masonic Temple, 420 N. Washington Ave.
“I’ve always been very visual, but I’ve never considered myself an artist,” she said. “Now, I’ll get invited to art events and I’m doing First Friday. It’s been neat.”
As an educator at teaching hospital Einstein Medical Center Philadelphia and an associate professor at Jefferson Medical College (now Sidney Kimmel Medical College), Summerton kept the images of the letters and shapes in her teaching files. When she began saving them more than 20 years ago, she never set out to become an artist or businesswoman but rather to fulfill a personal goal. A print in her living room depicted the alphabet spelled out in the shapes and colors of butterfly wings, and she wanted to hang something similar in her office using letters she saw in medical images.
It wasn’t until she planned to attend the Radiological Society of North America’s 100th anniversary and conference in Chicago that she realized she had the whole alphabet. The society encouraged those attending to share the most interesting or unusual cases they had seen or examples of radiological art.
This sparked an idea for Summerton to spell out “RSNA 100: A Century of Transforming Medicine” in medical images, which earned her an honorable mention. The society also displayed the piece.
“I called it ‘Letters to the RSNA,’” she said, adding that today she has at least five examples of each letter. “It was pretty amazing just to see it up there.”
Soon after, word traveled that Summerton created these works, and requests flooded in from coworkers, friends, family, students and more for birthday and holiday gifts, signs to hang in physicians’ and surgeons’ offices, and graduation and retirement keepsakes.
“People started to just ask me, ‘Can you make my name?’ (and) ‘Can you make this for my kid’s teacher?’ They were really excited about it,” she said. “That’s what motivates me to do what I do. It brings joy to people.”
With urging from friends and family, Summerton then began to think about her hobby as a business. She enrolled in a six-week course at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, where she learned the ins and outs of creating a business plan. She hired a graphic artist who also is a radiologist to recreate the original images since patients’ consent forms only allowed her to use the images for educational and research purposes — not for art or for profit. The recreated images are sharper and have a higher resolution than the originals, and Summerton assured that the letters and shapes always are based on her own findings.
Anatomy as inspiration
“They’re inspired by these images,” she said. “They’re just graphic representations of things that I’ve seen. And I’ve seen some interesting stuff.”
Summerton’s prints can be found around the world, and not just in medical offices. Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum — known for medical oddities, specimens and models — carries two of her works in its gift shop: a print of the Liberty Bell (actually an ultrasound of a bladder where an enlarged prostate gland looms in the background) with letters that spell “Philadelphia,” and a print that spells “Love” similar to the iconic statue and photo spot in the city’s Love Park (aka John F. Kennedy Plaza). She has sent her pieces as far away as Australia, and anyone can peruse her work or request a commission on her website, xrayart istry.com.
Summerton, who “can’t stop being a teacher,” plans to teach anatomy and radiology to third-year medical school students at Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine this fall. She hopes to use her art pieces to educate by compiling a children’s book or taking them to children’s hospitals one day. While having scans and X-rays done can be nerve wracking, she wants to show people the lightheartedness of the images and the universal truth of it all.
“It appeals to all people because we all have the same bodies,” Summerton said. “When you look at us on the inside, we all look the same. We are all the same.”
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