An artist in the world of medicine
I’m now in my ninth year of teaching Art & Anatomy in the Master Scholars Program in Humanistic Medicine at NYU's School of Medicine. The program is part of a growing movement in medicine that encourages a more humanistic and empathetic attitude toward patients and recognizes the value of listening to their voices, especially through the expressive power of the arts.
Medical humanism is personal for me, and the idea for Art & Anatomy came out of my experience as an artist/patient. I knew that drawing could be a great way to learn anatomy and a complement to dissection: an alternate mode of coming to know the human body.
In the course of making and exhibiting my artwork over the years, I had come to know many interesting people who were looking at the body in new and creative ways. Patients and people living with scoliosis and other kinds of physical difference, dancers and alternative movement practitioners, artists and activists in the disability community, and – surprisingly, to me – many doctors, told me that my work made them feel a closer connection to their bodies and to their own creativity, and many were inspired to explore the expressive power of art for themselves.
With this in mind, in 2008 I proposed an artist residency at the medical school. I wanted to pursue my own artistic process in the Anatomy Lab and 3D Imaging Lab. If I did so within the context of the medical school community, I thought, I could make art a source of dialogue and learning and the exchange of perspectives.
Art & Anatomy
This recent short film by Emon Hassan (for Narrative.ly) conveys the essence of my art-medicine connection and will show you Art & Anatomy in action:
On Tuesday evenings, art supplies are set out on tables and the Anatomy Lab is transformed into a studio, with a great spirit of creative enterprise. The hours of drawing bring a state of deep focus and concentration. We learn to let go of preconceptions and stay open to what we’re seeing. Making each drawing is a process of discovery and learning that takes us inside our own bodies and begins to change our relationship to the space within.
We learn to appreciate the uniqueness of each body’s inner space. Anomalies that would be seen as pathological in a medical context are seen by us simply as differences, idiosyncrasies that help to bring our drawings alive, and make each one the portrait of an individual.
This is how one student in the class, Hannah Bernstein, described it: “Art & Anatomy made me look at the body with the eye of an artist … to see the inherent beauty in bodies of all shapes and sizes, to focus on the incredible details and appreciate the amount of variation that exists in all of us. I learned that real people don’t look like textbook illustrations. No two people are the same, and no one is ‘perfect.’ Each body has its own unique deviations, and this applies to what’s inside as much as what’s on the surface.”
'Art & Anatomy: Drawings' exhibit
In class I encourage students to enjoy the process of drawing, rather than trying to create masterpieces. But seeing 76 of their drawings hanging together at our recent gallery exhibition was a revelation. It was a chance to see the work through the eyes of viewers, who were encountering – possibly for the first time ever – anatomy transformed into art.
The artists had not been seeking to impart deep meaning or profundity, yet so much meaning and feeling came through in their work. Looking at bones and cadavers, they were imagining the living person who once inhabited them, and through their drawings, viewers could share the experience and inhabit their own anatomies more fully.