Randee Ladden says her friends love to hear about the time she got an assignment from a manufacturer of containers used to collect bull semen. And then there’s the 30-by-40-inch painted cross-section of a penis she was hired to do by a man involved in a malpractice lawsuit. But the cocktail-party story Ladden’s probably been telling most lately is about designing the poster for The Road to Wellville, the Alan Parker movie based on T.C. Boyle’s novel about Battle Creek Sanitarium. “The script was so wacky,” Ladden says. “I mean, the first lines were all about masturbation and being a vegetarian and colonic washes.”

Luckily for the filmmakers, they chose an artist who could stomach the squeamish stuff: Ladden, who lives in Rogers Park, has been working as a free-lance medical illustrator for about a decade. Her colorful paintings and diagrams of stomachs, pancreatic acinars, fat cells, intestines, and colons have appeared in annual reports, catalogs, and such publications as the Journal of the American Dietetic Association and the Bulletin of the American College of Surgeons. In 1987 she rendered one of the first drawings of the HIV virus for Searle.

Columbia Pictures’ marketing staff initially spotted Ladden’s work in Workbook Illustration, a voluminous collection of samples from artists’ portfolios. Ladden’s page featured several surreal collages of old portraits, fortune-cookie platitudes, and found illustrations of industrial gadgetry. Like her medical illustrations, much of her own art deals with interior matters: mortality, time, self-discovery, creation, love, success. In one work a woman’s hair is replaced by gears, her vertebrae revealed by an X ray. Out of her mouth comes the typewritten query “What am I?” Ladden exhibited her collages in a group show at World Tattoo Gallery in March 1992.

She drew upon her collage work for the poster: A barely recognizable Anthony Hopkins (who plays Dr. Kellogg) stands with his arms stretched over his head. In one hand he’s holding a giant spoon (“A phallic symbol,” Ladden says), in the other a cereal box (Kellogg invented the cornflake; his younger brother cashed in on it). His left breast is adorned with a heart-shaped brooch bearing the maxim “Life is death postponed.” A line of exercising patients appears to be running through his pelvic region, which is visible as a framed X ray labeled “immaculate.”

Ladden learned about her relatively obscure field–there are only half a dozen training programs for medical illustration in the country–from a high school counselor and kept it in the back of her mind while she pursued a premed program. She switched to medical illustration at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign after suffering through an organic chemistry course. Later she got a master’s degree in biomedical communication from the University of Texas Health Science Center. (Her heart-surgeon brother fulfilled the family’s desire to produce an MD.)

Her graduate work involved spending weeks copying drawings by the masters (including, of course, Leonardo da Vinci). She was also trained in the “archaic” methods of her predecessors, including a painting method that involves using dust from ground carbon pencils. “I always played Gregorian chants when I did it,” Ladden says. “It just seemed appropriate.”

She also studied histology, pathology, prosthetics, and forensics, experimented with 3-D modeling, animation, and film, and observed surgery twice a week. “Ideally a medical illustrator knows anatomy better than a regular doctor,” she says. “The colors inside the human body are really incredible. A lot of times I’d see medical illustrators render things in these horrible bubble-gummy pink pictures. That made me really mad.”

Her first job out of school was a series of journal covers for the American Dietetic Association illustrating steps in the digestive process, from brain cells receiving hunger messages to the stomach’s gastric juices at work. These days a lot of her work comes from pharmaceutical companies, but she’s done educational pieces on breast self-examination and endometriosis. She’s also in demand by malpractice lawyers. A couple of weeks ago, working from hospital records and depositions, she drew the foot of a woman who had an artery severed when a stock boy dropped a jar of mayonnaise on it.

Ladden prepares for projects by reading as much as possible about the subject. For a recent project on osteoporosis, for instance, “I’ve been reading about calcium for days.”

The complexity of illustrations depends on their intended audience. But the conceptual challenge is always there: “What do you leave out and what do you leave in and how do you show the size relationship between things that are so small, but then put it into a context that people will understand?”

The other challenge, she says, is to overcome people’s queasiness about blood and guts by creating eye-catching images.

“I think a lot of people don’t want to see really what’s inside of them. They’re walking around with a pretty vast universe right inside their bodies all day long. . . . I was always astounded by the mystery of it.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.