X-ray vision

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“I was always finding sick or abandoned creatures and bringing them home,” says Dr Mark Penhale.
“I was always finding sick or abandoned creatures and bringing them home,” says Dr Mark Penhale.

A man of many talents, Dr Mark Penhale is a veterinarian, artist and voluntourist. Samantha Trenoweth discovers more …

Mark Penhale’s career was decided at birth, or at conception, really. “It was in the genes,” he says, laughing. “My father was a vet, my grandfather was a vet, my grandad’s seven brothers were all vets.” They worked out of a sprawling family practice in country Cornwall in the UK. “There was traditional large animal work, with some smallies in there. Then Dad broke with tradition and went into research, and he moved to Scotland, which was where I was born.”

Dr Penhale can’t remember a time when he wasn’t fascinated by animals. “The first animal I found was a bizarre emerald green lizard. It appeared in the back garden one day and it turned out to be quite a rare species, which was exciting. After that, animals became an obsession. I was always finding sick or abandoned creatures and bringing them home—bunnies with myxomatosis or birds that had fallen out of nests.”

When Dr Penhale was eight, his father was offered a teaching position at Murdoch University in Perth, and he decided that Australia was a great place to raise a family. “It was a magical thing,” Dr Penhale recalls, “to arrive here and discover Australia’s unique wildlife. That was inspiring too.”

In the latter years of high school, he realised that the family tradition had set the academic bar very high, which he remembers as somewhat stressful. “Then, after school,” he adds, “my father was one of my teachers at university, so there was a bit of pressure on there too. If I did badly, he knew before I did.”

There were times when Dr Penhale’s mind wasn’t entirely on the task at hand, because he loved to draw. He’d been sketching and doodling and flipping through art books in book stores for as long as he’d been bringing home strays. “Art and animals,” he explains. “They’re the two things that have been fairly constant throughout my life-—they’re two wonderful things. I was always drawing, as a kid. When I was in high school and also later in university, I spent a lot of time sketching teachers and lecturers when I should have been paying attention in class.”

Dr Penhale graduated from Murdoch in 1991 and went into mixed animal practice in country Western Australia, working from Kununurra and Karratha in the north, all the way down to Katanning and Albany. He did locum work at Perth Zoo and he taught at Murdoch University. For the past decade, he’s worked at a practice in Perth, which he likes because “there’s a great group of people involved and they let us all take a month off every year to travel and do teaching work overseas. So I’ve taught in Africa, India, Indonesia and Greece, which has been magic.”

One of Dr Penhale’s first trips was to the city of Jaipur in Rajasthan in north-western India. “The clinic we were working in was on the edge of the slum, and most of the vets and the people we were working with were Dalit or ‘untouchables’,” he recalls. “When I first arrived, I could see that I was absolutely in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by slums, I went, ‘Oh my God, what have I done? I have to be here for three months!’ But the people were beautiful and welcoming and the vet work was rewarding and I absolutely loved it. We treated mainly dogs but there were also elephants and camels and cattle. It was a very bizarre and wonderful experience.”

Through all this, Dr Penhale’s interest in art remained. He haunted galleries on weekends and he seemed to have a sixth sense for spotting the patterns in nature. Fifteen years ago, he began to explore radiology as art. At first, he experimented tentatively. Then access to digital equipment made it easier for him to transfer X-ray images to the computer and manipulate them. He was hooked.

“I think artists use whatever implements they have at hand,” he suggests, “and if you’re working in a busy vet practice, the darkroom becomes a peaceful place to retreat at the end of the day. The darkness and the white light are rather lovely, and then there are the images—objects or animals that create beautiful, dramatic pictures. The animals I use in my work are not clients’ animals. They tend to be roadkill or animals that have died after they’ve been abandoned. I think of my works as memorials.”

“There’s a great group of people involved and they let us all take a month off every year to do teaching work overseas.” Dr Mark Penhale

Dr Penhale gets mixed responses when he exhibits. “Some people are receptive and find it beautiful,” he says. “Others find it ghoulish and are horrified. People spend a lot of time trying to work out what the more abstract images are. That can be fun.”

One of his most powerful images is of a tiny rat adrift in an immense sea of black. “When I saw it on the very large X-ray plate,” he says, “it looked so small and vulnerable; ghostly, haunting. There’s a Goya painting of a little drowning dog in an ocean of black, and this tiny rat reminded me of that.”

Dr Penhale’s images are a personal response to working in a position in which he confronts mortality on a daily basis. “Facing the death of animals, day after day, takes its toll,” he admits. “It makes you more conscious of your own mortality as well. I suspect it’s one of the reasons that we see so many vets suiciding.”

Studies indicate that vets are four times more likely than the general population to take their own lives. “It’s an epidemic,” Dr Penhale explains. “I think it comes from a combination of factors: coping with the death of animals; dealing with very upset, stressed people; working long hours; having access to drugs. If you have a day when you need to perform three or four euthanasias of animals you know well, you go home shattered. If you’re going through a tough period in your personal life as well, then it’s very easy to be overwhelmed. It’s a serious problem and my art is, in part, a way of dealing with it. I create memorials to the little, lost souls that I see all the time, and it helps to get them out of my dreams.”

Dr Penhale’s most recent experiments have been with animating X-rays.

“I chop the images to pieces, put them through animation programs and give them movement. It adds another dimension, gives them new life—it’s almost raising them from the dead.”

So far, Dr Penhale has been pleased with his experiments. With luck, we’ll see these new works in galleries soon. Meanwhile, Mark Penhale’s art can be viewed at www.markpenhale.com.

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