Humane Endeavor

August 21, 2015 at 12:25 pm

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From the Division of Medical Humanities Newsletter:

An interview with Atul Gawande touches on medical error and fallibility, healthcare reform, the joys of reading, and how his research on end-of-life care made him a better doctor.

continue reading at guernicamag.org

Rediscovering a history of trauma: An interview with Dr. Annita Sawyer

August 17, 2015 at 2:20 pm

Dr. Annita Sawyer is a psychologist and the author of several essays, stories, and a memoir titled Smoking Cigarettes, Eating Glass, which was published in May 2015.

In 1960, however, Dr. Sawyer was battling mental illness and thoughts of suicide. She was institutionalized and underwent 89 electroshock treatments. Although traumatized by her experience as a patient, Dr. Sawyer survived the broken mental health system of the 1950s and 1960s and went on to graduate summa cum laude from Yale, earn her doctorate and join the faculty of the Yale University School of Medicine. In 2001, Sawyer sent for the records from the years she was a patient at the two psychiatric hospitals. She decided to reveal her past and began to write only after she had begun to recover from revisiting the early trauma and began to remember what had happened to her.

In this interview with Simone Leung, Dr. Sawyer discusses the process of creating her memoir, how doctoring and writing play into her life, and shifting perceptions of mental illness today.

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What originally led you to dig into your history, and why have you chosen to share your story in Smoking Cigarettes, Eating Glass at this point in time?

I'd been working full time for twenty years. As a psychotherapist I had reached a comfortable place professionally. My children were grown and on their own, so I had privacy. My husband and I were meeting with a marriage counselor who was struck by my sometimes vague, otherworldly demeanor, and the fact that in the middle of an argument I would often forget what I was talking about. She recognized this as dissociation, a symptom of trauma. I still had little memory of my first twenty years, and I had questions about my history, which I thought might have answers in the medical records. I wanted to find out the specific number of shock treatments I'd been given - my estimate of 54 seemed way too high. For all of these reasons, we agreed that I should send for the hospital records.

Conventional wisdom holds that the best way to make a point vivid and memorable is to connect it to a story about a real person. Reading the records triggered a dramatic revisiting of my early life - as a child and also as an adolescent in the hospital. All my old symptoms returned, overwhelming me. Memories I thought had been erased by shock treatment returned in many forms. Most striking were intense physical reactions that often lacked thoughts - memories were stored in my body even though they might have been erased in my mind. This experience of the enduring effects of trauma was so amazing to me that I was determined to share what I'd learned. I felt an urgent need to inform clinicians of the harm they could cause by being careless, by not paying attention, beginning with diagnosis.

A mental illness diagnosis has a powerful influence on one's sense of self. Also diagnosis often determines treatment and some treatments have severe life-changing side effects. Misdiagnosis can seriously compromise people's lives.

Beyond medical side effects, shame and stigma adds to the suffering already caused by mental illness. It can lead people to deny that they are having problems, or to avoid getting help, because treatment also carries stigma. This stigma also affects families and friends, who worry about shame by association. I kept my past hidden for most of my life, long after I was working as a psychologist. This secrecy was a given: no one ever suggested that I should stop hiding my past. However, the gratitude people show - friends and strangers alike - along with their references to my bravery now that I am speaking about my experience, makes clear how powerful the stigma is and how important it is that we work to diminish it.

And finally, I'm here, alive, today because I was fortunate to find the right therapist and to recover through psychotherapy. By showing how it worked for me, I want to inspire people both not to give up and to invest in good quality psychotherapy.

When you were sorting through your journal entries and gathering material for your memoir, did you find yourself having to filter out certain details? If so, could you talk about the process of determining what should be made public and what should be left personal?

Initially I was writing from the midst of urgent chaos, seeking to hold myself together by putting thoughts on a page. I repeated lots of fears; I can see looking back that I was in certain ways repeating my earlier hospital thinking. I had a sympathetic and savvy therapist who encouraged me to write down what was happening and to send it to her by email. The details I filtered out over time included primarily what I considered over the top melodrama. I also toned down what felt like was terrifically immature neediness in my relationship with my therapist. There was just so much embarrassing information I could bear to reveal.

In one of your essays, you explain that you initially held back from sharing your history in part due to fear that it would affect your professional reputation. Did opening up about your past and vulnerability affect your practice?

I am not alone in my concern that the stigma attached to acknowledging a history with mental illness could risk my professional reputation. A number of colleagues have confided their own fears. I kept my past hidden until I'd been in practice for more than twenty years.. The first time I spoke at a psychiatry grand rounds, I was a co-presenter and my name was not on the announcement. Before I did that I met with both a long time supervisor, a senior psychologist in New Haven, and with my former psychiatrist, checking with each one to make sure they didn't think I was compromising myself professionally to do this.

All of these precautions may or may not have made a difference. In fact, everywhere I've gone I've been treated with kindness and respect. I have been invited to make further presentations. People express gratitude and confide their own secrets. Among professionals my reception has been consistently positive. My patients appear unfazed. If anything, they say it makes them feel more secure to know how far I've come. They appreciate that I understand suffering.

Could you talk about the shame and fear of stigma attached to mental illness and psychotherapy today? Do you believe our perception of it is shifting and if so, how?

I hope that increased openness on the internet and the presence of more media series that include mental illness and psychotherapy will help to defuse the stigma. But every time there's a mass murder or similar tragedy and the perpetrator is someone identified with a psychiatric diagnosis much of the media hype that follows only serves to reinforce the fear, and thus stigma, again. I don't think there's a good way to change this except for successful, accomplished, public people to begin to refer to their therapy sessions or their childhood therapist or the year they had to drop out of college for treatment, etc. as if that was a perfectly reasonable response to the situation at the time, so that the public perception shifts to seeing mental illness and treatment, especially psychotherapy, as part of a continuum, as much more common that one would think and something that can be dealt with successfully.

Smoking Cigarettes, Eating Glass, "The Crazy One," "The Other Chair," and many of your other works seem to draw almost exclusively from your personal experiences. What is appealing about writing nonfiction to you?

Nonfiction is what I know. I haven't tried to write fiction because I worry I couldn’t create a good enough story. My own life in psychiatric hospitals, however, delivered hundreds of stories already made. I just had to learn how to capture them on the page. There's the challenge of telling a good story as a way to make a psychological point. By using myself I can show the many sides of a simple action - the shame, fear, excitement, dread and hope that can be part of making a decision or taking a stand. I can illustrate emotions and psychological dilemmas without wondering if I'm accurate or not. The truth has sort of been handed to me and I'm using it.

As a psychologist and an author, you straddle the worlds of medicine and humanities. Could you talk about the interplay between your professions?

At the center of both medicine and humanities is the individual human experience. Yet that experience takes place in a context. We're all products of families and cultures, which vary widely, to say nothing of the larger forces of economics and the natural environment.

For me personally, your question itself couldn't be more affirming. You accept as given that I am an author as well as a psychologist; you refer to my professions, plural. And today this is true: I belong to both worlds. Each enriches the other. I find joy in both. Often the mistakes I make in therapy, the times I'm insensitive or overlook something important, come from rushing, from filling in the blanks with my own assumptions rather than being patient and listening with respect. The more open we are to varieties of experience, the better we can listen and appreciate any particular individual we encounter.

Are you currently working on any new projects?

I have pages of ideas for new projects, but I haven't yet been able to develop one beyond a few tentative stories. I'm learning that to have a book accepted for publication and then actually published and available is only another step in a long, ongoing process. It sounds trite, perhaps, but it's like having a baby. Labor and delivery is just the beginning! I'll be going to a residency in the fall where I'll have three weeks to really focus on beginning something new. I want to write stories about psychotherapy from a variety of points of view - the patient and therapist perhaps, but also the patient's parent or partner or child; people in the therapist's life. I want to see if I can convey the effects of psychotherapy as they ripple beyond the consulting room, to show how it heals (or doesn't) and how one person's change affects a whole system. And I'm beginning to think I want to write a novel that would tell what I imagine to be my mother's story.

Simone Leung is an intern at the Bellevue Literary Review. She is a rising junior majoring in Global Studies at Colby College and is interested in creative writing.

Sawyer's story "The Crazy One" appeared in The Bellevue Literary Review: http://blr.med.nyu.edu/content/archive/2012/spring/crazyone

Patient Autonomy & Shifting Medical Ethics

August 7, 2015 at 1:20 pm

04eea5d5-bf0f-47c3-a305-0bddbafc7227From the Division of Medical Humanities Newsletter:

In an interview with Point of Inquiry, Barron Lerner, MD, PhD, professor of medicine and population health at NYULMC, "paints a global picture of all of the ethical considerations that come into play when practicing medicine as he wrestles with what he believes it takes to be a good doctor."

continue reading on pointofinquiry.org

Close Observation: Nursing & Writing

August 4, 2015 at 12:14 pm

From the Division of Medical Humanities Newsletter:

What is it like to be both a nurse and a writer, and how does one inform the other? The Bellevue Literary Review, a journal of humanity and human experience published by NYU Langone Medical Center, recently held a fascinating roundtable discussion on these questions and more.

continue reading at blr.med.nyu.edu

Reflections of a Young Doctor

August 3, 2015 at 10:32 am

From the Division of Medical Humanities Newsletter:

Does asking medical residents to participate in reflective writing exercises help them to better connect with patients? New York magazine highlights a study, recently published in The Journal of Health Communication, that addresses this question. Excerpts from the program exercises are featured.

continue reading at nymag.com

Oliver Sacks - "My Periodic Table"

July 31, 2015 at 10:18 am

From the Division of Medical Humanities Newsletter:

A moving essay from the great Oliver Sacks serves as a primer for embracing life, and science, even as the end approaches: "And now, at this juncture, when death is no longer an abstract concept, but a presence — an all-too-close, not-to-be-denied presence — I am again surrounding myself, as I did when I was a boy, with metals and minerals, little emblems of eternity."

continue reading at nytimes.com

Wherever You Go: Self-Representation and Williams Syndrome

July 14, 2015 at 5:04 pm

Jess Libow is currently a summer intern at the Bellevue Literary Review. She is a rising senior English major at Haverford College interested in disability studies.

Nader and Josh at the Wildhorse

All photos courtesy of camp staff

Looking out over the dance floor at Nashville's Wildhorse Saloon as other members of our group line danced with the crowd below, Mark told me "It's good for us to get out into the community so that people know we exist." As a counselor this past June at Lifting Lives Music Camp at Vanderbilt University, run by the Academy of Country Music, I lived in a dorm with Mark, who is 51, and seven other men with Williams Syndrome. After this experience, I couldn't agree with him more.

Lifting Lives is a weeklong musical experience for people ages 16 and older with Williams Syndrome. Over the course of the week, campers from all over the country come together to write a song with renowned Nashville songwriters and, after much rehearsal, record and perform their original work at the historic Grand Ole Opry.

Recording Studio

While performing a song written only a few days earlier at the Opry might be intimidating to most, many people with Williams Syndrome thrive in this sort of setting. Williams Syndrome (WS) is a congenital neurodevelopmental disorder caused by the deletion of 26 genes on chromosome 7. WS is an extremely rare condition: the NIH estimates it occurs in 1 in 7,500 to 10,000 live births. In addition to mild to moderate intellectual disability and a range of medical issues, including cardiac conditions, people with WS are likely to have a number of distinct social qualities. Studies have shown, for instance, that people with WS have a strong predilection for music. People with WS also tend to have remarkably little social inhibition; they are eager to meet and please others and are deeply attuned to the emotional states of those around them. Their profound desire to connect lends itself easily to musical performance - people with WS are natural storytellers.

As an English major interested in disability studies, I was drawn to Lifting Lives because I saw it as an opportunity to witness people with disabilities telling their stories through songwriting. This year, the campers wrote a song with Ross Copperman and Heather Morgan titled "Wherever You Go." It's an uplifting song about aspirations and supporting one another. The most notable part of the song is the bridge, which is both universal and incredibly specific to people with WS. "Thunder roars and the rain might fall," the song goes, "but together we're unstoppable." This brief moment in the song addresses two significant characteristics of WS. People with WS have extremely high levels of anxiety, particularly about events beyond their control. Thunderstorms are a common stressor for a number of the Lifting Lives campers, and were a constant topic of discussion throughout the week. Because of the extent to which the "roar" of thunder produces anxiety in people with WS, when the campers sing this line many of them are essentially referring to their highest possible level of emotional discomfort - it is both a metaphor and a reality. The second half of the line, "but together we're unstoppable," speaks directly to the value people with WS place on human connection. The lyrics suggest that through interdependence, the campers are able to to withstand anxieties and other obstacles. This celebration of community support not only resonates personally with the campers, but is applicable across differences and abilities.

lifting lives camp

Songwriting and singing provide a creative and exciting way for the campers to tell their stories. David, for example, told me that he'd "always wanted to write a book about Williams Syndrome," but after a songwriting workshop with songwriter Odie Blackmon, "might have to change it up. There should be a song about this!" Like David, however, many of the campers have a propensity for self-representation off-stage as well.

I was struck by the ease with which campers would share stories from their past and especially intrigued by how many of their stories had to do with Williams Syndrome directly. The ever-enthusiastic Gary told me over dinner that he once encountered two nurses in the ER who'd "never met anybody who had Williams Syndrome! And they said what in the world is that? And I said to look it up, 'cause it's a really cool thing to know about!" Trevor, who works with People First, a disability advocacy organization in his home state of Washington, added that "people judge us sometimes, but they just don't know. We're friendly."

Their stories weren't always so straightforward. Some of the campers readily used simile to represent their experiences. For instance, while waiting at the gate to board his flight home, Trevor told me how he felt about my accompanying him. "It's like Barack Obama," he explained, "he’s the most powerful man in the world, but the legislative branch still sometimes helps him. So you're helping me right now." For Trevor, having a counselor wait with him at the airport wasn't insulting; it was merely part of a system of interdependence not unlike one of checks and balances. Similarly, Mark, who loves doing impressions, drew on his love of old movies to teach me about his past. "I identified with Frankenstein’s monster when I was younger," he shared after an impromptu impression of the character, "the neighbors weren’t very nice to me because I had this disability. But I found a way and I made friends."

It's hard not to wonder what drives this impulse to self-narrate. When does the desire to share one's story stop being a symptom and start being political? Does this distinction even matter?

Self-representation is a crucial aspect of disability politics today. As self-advocates, people with disabilities around the world are making sure their voices are heard. As the critical field of disability studies indicates, self-representation is a crucial aspect of advocacy efforts. This kind of political action embraces something that comes naturally to so many people with Williams Syndrome: telling your story. And a lot of the people I met at camp know that this matters. Echoing Mark's sentiment at the Wildhorse, many of the campers want others to "know [they] exist." Like David, who wanted to write a book, or maybe a song, about WS. And Kurt, who has a radio show every week. Josh, who told me he plans to write a blog for the Williams Syndrome Association. And Trevor and Dara, who are both self-advocates in their hometowns.

In my experience, people with WS challenge how we think about narrative and storytelling. They force us to reconsider what motivates us to share, to speak up, and to put ourselves and our stories out there. Biology and politics both come into play. It can be tempting to write off someone's unsolicited story as a symptom of their disability. It can also be tempting to romanticize their efforts to speak up for themselves with an overzealous "good for you" and a pat on the back. But at the end of the day, there's something powerful about someone sharing their life experience and perspective. The people I met at camp, whose stories I've tried to recount here, want to put everything on the table. I think they might be onto something.

To learn more about Williams Syndrome, please visit https://williams-syndrome.org/
To learn more about Lifting Lives, please visit their website

Cortney Davis - When the Nurse Becomes a Patient: A Story in Words and Images (Part II)

June 9, 2015 at 2:00 pm

(Kent State University Press, 2015)

[Editor's Note: This is Part II of a dialogue between author and painter Cortney Davis and our Art Editor Laura Ferguson. Part I can be read here.]

Laura: I'd love to know more about your studio process. I see that some of the pieces are acrylic, some oil, and some include collage. Are they as unselfconscious as they seem? Did they come into being easily and quickly, without a lot of working over - or did you just make it seem that way? You let us feel your pain and your aloneness, you invite us to understand, and you allow us in to your experience. I suspect that may be in part because your paintings are not too perfect and polished.

Cortney: The paintings were painted very rapidly with no working over. I was discharged in mid-July, and the first painting was done at the end of July. Most of the paintings were done in August, six of them, one after the other, usually only a few hours per painting, or less. Three were done in September and two in October. I actually didn’t know what I was doing, technique wise. I painted in my basement in front of an open sliding door, with music playing (most often "The Tallis Scholars Sing Thomas Tallis" or "Agnus Dei, Music of Inner Harmony"). Painting also took my mind off my body (I was having a lot of medication side effects) and I really felt blessed to be alive, to be home, and to be standing by the open door with summer all around me, doing something that seemed totally free from "thought." When I finished the last painting, I looked at them and wondered exactly how they came about. It seemed there was no "planning" to them, just the painting.

As I recovered, however, by October I could sense the paintings becoming more "thought about" and less unselfconscious. I began to wonder if I was painting "correctly" and I found myself being more careful, more precise with the last two paintings. It was as if when I regained control of my body and my illness was less central, less in command of my day, I also moved, little by little, away from the totally un-thought-about and un-planned-expression that marked the paintings. (The paintings in the book, by the way, are not in the order I painted them - they have been arranged, in the book, in a chronological order to tell the story. I painted the images without rhyme or reason, just painting whatever seemed most urgent.)

The commentaries were added in November and December, at a time when words seemed to return to me, certainly the creative medium in which I was most comfortable and felt most proficient.

The Dark Night

Laura: You say that "painting seemed to be all about the body" but also that "painting took my mind off my body." Is that a contradiction? Did it feel like getting back to your body the way it felt before the illness?

Cortney: Painting felt physical, messy. It felt more like my body if my body only consisted of the senses.

When I painted the last one (which is the last in the book, "Angel Band") I noticed it was very neat - it felt less messy than the earlier ones - and I knew it was a sign that my head was taking over again. I haven't really done any more painting since then.

Laura: I wonder if being so vulnerable and out of control, and in a situation that forces us to live in our bodies in a very basic sense, opens us up, frees up that kind of expressiveness. The side of ourselves that needs to get things right becomes unimportant.

I'm thinking about the med students in my Art & Anatomy drawing class. I find myself trying to get them to loosen up, to enjoy being messy, to let go of trying to get it "right" - which is hard, because it's so important in every other aspect of med school. I think this is related to the issue of control that you bring up. You speculate that "maybe turning illness into something creative is a way of taking control," and I think that's true. It allows us to organize the experience, to present it as we see it. But paradoxically, it's a control that comes from letting go of control. As you say, it works best when it's messy and just comes out, without a lot of thought or oversight from one's internal editor.

This tells me that there's the potential for tremendous creativity in the world of medicine, from both patients and caregivers - and that art is a great way for each to communicate and open up the reality of their experience to the other.

Cortney Davis - When the Nurse Becomes a Patient: A Story in Words and Images

June 2, 2015 at 9:40 am

(Kent State University Press, 2015)

A dialogue with Art Editor Laura Ferguson (Part I)

Carol Donley, in her annotation of Cortney's book in the LitMed Database, writes that "the vivid paintings speak for themselves, and they add a different way of knowing not available through words." As an artist whose work explores the experiences of her own body, I believe strongly in the power of art to express things that can't be as easily communicated in other ways, especially about experiences that go deep, like illness, pain, and isolation. Because Cortney is both a medical professional and a wonderful writer, I welcomed the opportunity for a dialogue with her about the expressive power of visual art.

Laura: You chose painting to express your feelings about the experience of being a patient, even though you are also a writer and poet. Can you say more about why it felt more right to express yourself without words? Do you think it was because the experience was so physical, so much about the body? For me, drawing seems to come directly from my body - it allows my body to express itself directly, through my hand. Is that how it felt for you?

Cortney: I didn’t really choose painting, rather it sort of chose me. When I was finally discharged after the second hospitalization my friends wondered if I was going to write about my experience. I felt the need to respond to my illness in some creative way (maybe turning illness into something creative is a way of taking control?), but I really could not find the words. It felt as if there were no words to adequately express what I had been through or what I’d experienced in the hospital. Words seemed too intellectual, too distant and too controlled to express something that felt raw, profound, and frightening. Also, since I’m primarily a writer, there is always an internal editor that watches over my shoulder when I write, and I didn’t have the emotional energy to embark on a writing "project" that I’d be trying to make "good" or "worthy."

My urge to paint took me a bit by surprise because I’m not a painter. A few months before my surgery, a painter friend had invited me to her house to paint with her, and she had introduced me to acrylics and oils - that was the first time I’d put paint to canvas. But after a few of our painting sessions, I was hospitalized. When I was discharged, I remembered that I had paints and some blank canvases at home. I felt drawn to paint images that I recalled from my hospitalization. My illness was all about my body, and painting seemed to be all about the body too: the smell of the paint and the feel of the paint and the brush on the canvas, the movement of my hand and arm, the lack of an internal editor (since I really had no idea if I was doing the painting "right" or not), the emotional impact of the colors and shapes, and the lack of the need to "intellectualize" the process.

CortneyDavis-Dilaudid-Land-72

Laura: Why did you then decide to add words? How would you characterize the relationship of your words to your paintings, or what you felt their purpose was? Do you think the paintings can stand alone?

Cortney: After I’d painted the twelve images, I wanted to share them with some of my nurse friends and with my family. I took photos of the paintings with my iPad and wanted to send them around, but I knew that viewing the paintings alone, unless someone knew a bit about what had happened, might be confusing. I added the commentaries in an attempt to make my very personal experience more universal, and to put down in words why those particular images stayed with me. By the time I added the commentaries, I was months into my recovery and feeling as if I might now find the words. The painting had helped me enter once again into the illness in an attempt to make emotional sense of it, and maybe the words helped make intellectual sense of it.

I now think the paintings could stand alone (now that I can see them more objectively), or at least a viewer might get a general sense of the story if he or she viewed the images as a series. But, since I’m a writer and not an artist, I felt the urge, eventually, to explain to others and to myself just what was going on in each painting.

Laura: Would you say that you made the paintings more for yourself or for other viewers? Do other paintings convey powerful, deep feelings to you? Do you think the paintings allow viewers to empathize with your experience?

Cortney: I think some artists and writers "do" their art in spite of illness, and some because of illness. In my writing about being a nurse, I write because of others’ illnesses as an observer. But painting as a patient, I was painting and then writing because of my own illness. Interesting! I never would have come up with those specific images if I’d not been a patient.

Laura: You told me that some people were "creeped out" by your paintings, or found them too depressing. - but I don't think people who've been there, who've been through experiences like this, will find them depressing. I think it's great that you go right to the heart of suffering, not sugar-coating it. You're willing to admit how out of control, how vulnerable you felt - and I think that totally comes across in the paintings. I'm sure you were an empathetic nurse, so can you say more about why you needed to experience being a patient yourself in order to understand what it was like to feel that vulnerable?

Cortney: I had been a patient many times before this last illness. But I’d never been close to death as a patient, or so sick for an extended period of time. I believe it might have been the very real possibility that I could die that made a difference in my understanding of the power of illness. I experienced a deep hopelessness and even a wish that I would die quickly, if I was meant to die. I had time to contemplate suffering and to review my life, realizing all the ways in which, while I’d been empathic, I had failed to understand the depths of suffering - mental, physical and spiritual - that gravely ill patients can experience.

In addition, my prolonged hospitalization was the direct result of a surgical mishap and, during my hospitalization, there were other complications that stemmed from lab and medication errors. Not only was I seriously ill, I was for the first time a patient who was unable to rely completely on those who were caring for me. Because I was a nurse, I could see the events and complications of my illness both from the inside - my personal experience of them - and from the outside - my inability to make sense of why or how these errors had occurred and were occurring.

As a writer, I’d always thought that I had the vocabulary with which to express what my patients might be experiencing, and to express what I was experiencing as their caregiver, in my poems and non-fiction. But during this illness, I felt in a very profound way the metaphorical inadequacy or incompleteness of my vocabulary. There is a level of vulnerability that can’t be intuited from the bedside but can only be experienced.

Laura: Related to that, do you think it's possible that nurses (and other medical professionals) get a sense of control from their jobs, that makes them feel protected from being in the patient role - a kind of magical thinking?

Cortney: I believe that all caregivers are acutely aware, especially after years of practice, that it only takes one second for someone to be thrust from the role of caregiver to the role of patient. And I believe too that there are many instances in medicine and nursing in which caregivers feel totally out of control - not wise enough, not quick enough, not prepared enough. I never felt that I would be "in control" by virtue of being a nurse, or that being a nurse combated any fear of dependency. I was more often in awe, feeling great vulnerability, but always both enriched and humbled by my interactions with patients.

[Editor's note: Part 2 of this dialogue will be published next week, with more about Cortney's studio process, and thoughts about artmaking as a way of both holding on to and letting go of control.]

Thinking About the Body Through Visual Art

March 16, 2015 at 1:58 pm

Readers of the Literature, Art & Medicine Blog may remember me as the first Artist in Residence at NYUSOM, or as the creator and teacher of Art & Anatomy in the Master Scholars Program in Humanistic Medicine [previously] [interview]. You may have seen my own or my students' work on exhibit in the MSB (Medical Science Building) Gallery at NYU Langone Medical Center, or read Founding Editor Felice Aull's insightful annotation of my work in the Database. Coming to the world of medicine as an artist, patient, and inhabiter of an unusual anatomy, I've been honored to have a voice in the humanistic medicine dialogue. Today I'm writing to introduce myself in a new role that I'm excited to take on, as the new Art Editor of the revamped, redesigned LitMed Database and Blog.

My first task as art editor was to find an image to represent Visual Art on the website's new landing page. It was a challenge, but a fascinating one … and in the end I was happy to find the solution not in one perfect image but in bringing together this set of four. They represent an intriguing spectrum of cultures, time periods, media, and ways of thinking about the body, each gaining a deeper resonance by being juxtaposed with the others.

Litmed-lpage-VisualArt
left to right: Laura Ferguson, Pavel Tchelitchew, Sopheap Pich, Leonardo da Vinci
more information and links to each image can be found at [http://medhum.med.nyu.edu/about]

In each of these artworks, an image of the head or the brain is imbued with a sense of consciousness, an awareness of its own embodiment. Each of the artists is attuned to correspondences between the forms of nature and those of the body. With varying degrees of transparency, they each allow us to see or sense the underlying anatomy - and more broadly, to look beneath the surface of life, which is what art is able to do so well.

There is an inherent humanism in art, and a great power to communicate - to express things that can't be as easily communicated in other ways. The connection between artist and viewer allows us to share experiences that go deep into the human spirit and psyche - the same places where illness or pain or differentness or isolation often take us.

Leonardo_blogpost

Art looks beneath the surface of life - but strangely enough, it rarely looks beneath the surface of the skin. For Leonardo da Vinci, drawing anatomy was an essential part of his artistic investigations into the nature of human experience. The anatomical studies in his notebooks were drawn (c.1509-10) from personal observation of human dissections - but also from life models. His drawings take us beneath the skin of real people who still come alive to us 500 years later, and make us think about the beauty and complexity that lies within our living bodies.

Surprisingly, since Leonardo's time very few artists have looked inward to show us the beauty of our intriguing, spatially complex inner landscapes, or to explore their meaning. Anatomy became part of a genre, medical illustration - which has given us many great images but, as it grew more scientifically accurate over the centuries, became increasingly generic and impersonal. Now when we try to visualize our unique inner spaces, we tend to imagine something that looks like a medical textbook. It's hard to find images we can relate to - especially for those of us (like me) with unusual anatomies.

Tchelitchew_blogpost-r

One of the few artists to use the imagery of anatomy was Pavel Tchelitchew, who painted Interior Landscape (above left) and The Golden Leaf (right) in the 1940's. He used the imagery of anatomy, glowing from within, to represent the spiritual aspect of human life and its connection to nature and the cosmic order of the universe. His networks of nerves and blood vessels evoke invisible structures at the far reaches of scale, from atoms to constellations.

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Sopheap Pich is a contemporary Cambodian-born artist who created Buddha 2 (above left) out of rattan and wire in 2009. The openness of its woven reeds allows light to shine through, suggesting the inner body. Pich was a pre-med student before turning to art, and many of his woven sculptures, like Cycle 3 (center) and Caged Heart (right) suggest anatomical forms. But for him, the spirituality of the body is connected to culture and history. His Buddha radiates a peace and calm that contrast with the tips of its rattan strands, dyed red to evoke the blood spilled during the Cambodian genocide.

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Finally, my own work: Cerebrum, coronal view, with floating colors (left and also above, the header image for the Blog). Curving vertebrae with spinal nerves (center), and Lung, opened (right). I draw from skeletons and cadaver dissections and from radiology images of my own body, made for my use as an artist: a 3D spiral CT scan of my body and a 7-Tesla MRI of my brain. The open access to anatomical source materials that I've gained through my role at the medical school allows me to evoke the subtle textures of physical reality as I draw my own body from the inside out, attuned to sensory and kinesthetic experience.
You can see more of my work at www.lauraferguson.net.

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The idea for Art & Anatomy, my seminar in the Master Scholars Program in Humanistic Medicine, came out of my own work as an artist. I knew that drawing would a great way to learn anatomy, and a humanistic mode of engaging with the dissection experience and its intimate involvement with the visceral reality of the body. Art & Anatomy is about learning to draw but even more about learning to see: to visualize the inner body and connect it to the the more familiar outside view. The artists are students, faculty, and staff from the medical school and NYU Langone Medical Center, who bring a special perspective to their work: a knowledge and understanding gained through their hands-on engagement with the body and its ills.
Shown above, Pelvis by Susanna Nguy (left) and Under the Skin II by Karen Ong (right). A gallery of student art is on view at http://school.med.nyu.edu/humanisticmed/artandanatomy

As your art editor, I'll continue to present you with images like these, including the work of artists with disabilities and unusual anatomies whose work comes from their own inner body experience and others whose work captures the uniqueness of our inner bodies and helps us connect with them more closely. I hope they will make you think of anatomy and the body in new ways, and show you the power of art to communicate and connect us. I'd love to hear from readers, especially if you have artists to recommend - you can contact me at laura@lauraferguson.net.