Posthumous Portraiture Exhibit at the Folk Art Museum

January 27, 2017 at 3:11 pm

By Gabriel Redel-Traub

There is something eerie about walking into the Folk Art Museum's posthumous portraiture exhibit. The last line of the introductory panel to the exhibit reads: "We cannot help but hear them whisper 'remember me.'" This sentiment rings true.

Baby in Blue by William Matthew *

The exhibit is split into three rooms and filled with portraits of apparently posthumous subjects. I say apparently, because to a 21st century viewer, nothing in these portraits would indicate that the subjects were dead at the time they were painted. Informative panels, however, inform us that there are visual clues, motifs, and allusions in each portrait which would suggest to a 19th century viewer that the subject had passed away prior to the portrait being painted. This explains why many of the portraits have subjects with only one shoe on and why there are cats in many of the pieces.

The large majority of the pieces on display in the exhibit are simple portraits. The onlooker is directly confronted by the subject. In this way, these folk-art portraits differ drastically from the canonical depictions of death in the works of our greatest artists. In these works, death is taken as an opportunity to grapple with life, futility and grief: Michaelangelo's Pieta and Edvard Munch's By the Deathbed come to mind.


Edvard Munch's By the Deathbed

The simple mimetic nature of these folk-art portraits, on the other hand, is in part explained by their purpose. Many of the portraits on display in the exhibit were originally meant to hang in the home of the family of the deceased, a visual representation of a lost loved one serving the purpose a photo would today. As such, the portraits show their subjects as what they are not, vivacious: children play with dolls, a young girl picks flowers, a young boy fishes in a lake.

In stark contrast to the paintings' vivacity, the exhibit also includes 80 daguerreotypes with haunting black and white images of dead adults, or parents with bleak expressions staring out at you, their dead children strewn across their laps. The images arranged together in a small room of the exhibit force the viewer into a direct confrontation with the dead and are particularly haunting.

And yet, still, even though most of the portraits don't show explicitly posthumous subjects, there remains an eerie feeling throughout the exhibit.ASome part of that strangeness can be explained by the fact that the artists of many of the pieces in the exhibit were untrained giving their work a medieval feel- namely, the tendency to paint strangely adult faces on young children

However, the greater contributing factor, I think, is the mere knowledge that each portrait- and most of the portraits are of children- was made posthumously. This forces uncomfortable questions: was the deceased arranged as a model to be painted from? Or was the subject drawn from memory? How exactly did this process work? The information provided by the museum only partially answers these questions.

The Farwell Children by Deacon Robert Peckham *

The exhibit forces the modern onlooker into an empathic interaction with the deceased and with the story that the onlooker creates. In one particularly haunting piece The Farwell Children, five children look on demanding you take them in. Did all five of these young children die? Where did they come from? Where are the mother and father and how could they possibly endure this? The exhibit thrusts us into a more intimate conversation with death; one which our ancestors- for whom death was constantly looming more ominously over- were often preemptively forced into.

In the 21st century, the overwhelming attitude towards death is to push it away-out of sight, out of mind. This is, frighteningly, true for medical professionals and students studying medicine. The D word is taboo, everything a doctor is fighting against, so why should it even be brought up? And yet, death is also an invariable part of a medical student's experience. As Laura Ferguson, artist-in-residence at NYU School of Medicine writes:


"For most medical students today, the dissection of a cadaver represents their first confrontation with death, and with the visceral reality of the human body. They come to the experience with great curiosity but also with a degree of discomfort, even fear, about what they may encounter. They bring a sense of empathy and caring to their relationships with these "first patients" - but because it requires cutting, this rite of passage is their first experience of having to "hurt to heal." So, for many students, their time in the Anatomy Lab begins a process of emotional detachment."

Looking at the posthumous portraits- and at art more generally- serves as a way to reconnect, to reestablish the humanity and individuality of the deceased. It obliges us to find beauty in death and to acknowledge that death is an intimate part of life.

Securing the Shadow: Posthumous Portraiture in America is on at the American Folk Art Museum through February 26th A

Gabriel Redel-Traub is a 1st year medical student at NYU School of Medicine and a Rudin Fellow for 2016-2017.

* The Farwell Children Deacon Robert Peckham (1785-1877)
Fitchburg, Massachusetts c. 1841
Oil on canvas 53 1/2 x 40 1/2″; 62 1/2 x 48″ (framed)
Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York
Gift of Ralph Esmerian, 2005.8.11
Photo © 2000 John Bigelow Taylor

* Baby in Blue William Matthew Prior (1806-1873)
New England c. 1845 Oil on paper on wood 23 3/4 x 17″; 29 3/8 x 22 5/8 x 1 1/4″ (framed)
Collection National Gallery of Art, Washington Gift of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch, 1953.5.58 Photo courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

Rx: Literature | A Reading to Celebrate Bellevue Literary Review's 30th Issue

May 5, 2016 at 11:27 am

PLEASE JOIN US Monday, May 16th | 6pm
Bellevue Hospital, 462 First Avenue at 28th St. - Chapel Hall

BLR spring reading 2016

Our readers:

Sonni Aun had the great fortune of growing up all over the world and is now a painter and writer in New York City. She holds a BA in Biochemistry and Art from Rice University and is currently studying writing with the poet Philip Schultz at the Writers Studio.

Katy Lederer is the author of the poetry collections Winter Sex (Verse Press) and The Heaven-Sent Leaf (BOA Editions), as well as of the memoir Poker Face: A Girlhood Among Gamblers. She is currently at work on a collection of essays around apocalyptic themes and a book of poetry about autoimmunity, deformity, and motherhood titled The Engineers.

Susanna Nguy is from Brooklyn, New York. She graduated from the City College of New York in 2013 where she developed a passion for oncology research. She is completing her medical degree and will be doing her residency in Radiation Oncology at NYU. "The Lump," from this issue of BLR, is her first published story.

Adam Young was born and raised in Providence, Rhode Island, where he attended Classical High School. He is currently studying English Literature and Creative Writing at New York University and he is volunteering at Writopia Lab, a creative writing organization offering workshops for kids and teens. His work has appeared in the Zine Play(ed) Boy: Volume II and he hopes to continue to participate in the creative writing community.

States of Grace: From Doctor to Patient and Back Again

April 5, 2016 at 3:39 pm

Katie Grogan, DMH, MA and Tamara Prevatt, MA,
Master Scholars Program in Humanistic Medicine, NYU School of Medicine


Before the accident, Dr. Grace Dammann was a caregiver through and through, in every aspect of her life. A pioneering AIDS specialist, she co-founded one of the first HIV/AIDS clinics for socioeconomically disadvantaged patients in San Francisco at Laguna Honda Hospital. She was honored by the Dalai Lama with an Unsung Heroes of Compassion Award for her service and devotion to this population. Grace was also the primary breadwinner and parent in her family with partner Nancy "Fu" Schroeder and adopted daughter Sabrina, who was born with cerebral palsy and HIV. She lived and worked in such close proximity to illness, death, and disability, but nothing could have prepared her for the devastating injuries she sustained when a driver veered across the divide on the Golden Gate Bridge, crashing head on into her car.

Grace spent seven weeks in a coma, hovering on the precipice between life and death, like so many of her own patients. Ultimately, she awoke with her cognitive abilities miraculously intact, but her body was irreversibly impaired, leaving her wheelchair-bound and dependent on others for simple daily tasks. States of Grace, a documentary film about her profound transformation, picks up Grace's story when she is discharged following a thirteen-month stay in rehabilitative hospitals. Members of NYU Langone Medical Center, including medical and nursing students as well as faculty and staff across all disciplines, were invited to attend a screening of the film and talkback with Dr. Grace Dammann and the filmmakers, Mark Lipman and Helen S. Cohen of Open Studio Productions.

States of Grace captures the expansive and rippling effects of the accident, how it left every corner of Grace's life radically altered-personal, professional, psychological, spiritual, and economic. The family dynamic is turned on its head. Fu becomes the primary caregiver to both Grace and Sabrina, and as Grace says, "Sabrina's position in the family was radically upgraded by the accident. She is so much more able-bodied than I am." Fu struggles with the enormity of the role she has signed up for. Grace wrestles with her gratitude for having survived and the frustrations of her new life: "I feel like I've lost a best friend-my body . . . When I first woke up, I was just glad to be alive, plain and simple. Now I'm just annoyed-annoyed at the limitations. I'm bored." In one scene we see Grace argue with Fu about her right to die if she continues to be so impaired.


Grace grieves for her old life, for how effortless things were. We watch as her fierce resilience pulls her through to acceptance. She credits her Zen Buddhist practice for her ability to keep moving forward: "Nothing lasts forever, even great pain and sorrow." Though some of her ultimate goals-to walk again, to dance again, to surf again-remain unattainable at the film's conclusion, Grace sets, meets, and exceeds new ones. Acknowledging that she only felt completely whole when practicing medicine, she "comes out" as a disabled person to the medical community, returning to Laguna Honda Hospital as its first wheelchair-bound physician, where she is appointed Medical Director of the Pain Clinic. She resumes the caregiver role, but with an intimate knowledge of the lived experience of pain, suffering, and disability. In the talkback Grace remarked, "Once you disrupt the integrity of the body, you're disrupting the integrity of the psyche, and I don't think any of us think about that. I certainly didn't as a physician. I hate to admit how many times I discharged people without even getting them up to see that they could walk." She also brings her Buddhist training to the clinic, where she promotes wellness among the staff and patients by teaching meditation.

As the talkback ended, attendees lingered, eager to chat with the filmmakers and shake hands with Grace, awestruck by her story of triumph, adaptability, service, and the lessons learned on both sides of the doctor-patient divide.

Sabrina will graduate this May with her Bachelor's degree. Grace partnered with the driver who hit her to advocate for a median barrier on the Golden Gate Bridge to prevent similar accidents from happening in the future. The barrier was installed in January 2015.

This screening was co-sponsored by the Master Scholars Program in Humanistic Medicine, the Office of Medical Education, and the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. Special thanks to Drs. Pamela Rosenthal and Marianne Sommerville for bringing the film to NYULMC. For more information on States of Grace and to arrange a screening, go to:


NYU Center for Humanities Event Imagining Illness: Pulitzer Prize Winners on Truth and Fact in Narrative David Oshinsky and Paul Harding

March 29, 2016 at 1:30 pm

By J. Russell Teagarden
On a recent winter's evening, Pulitzer Prize winners David Oshinsky and Paul Harding appeared together at the NYU Center for Humanities in an event cosponsored by the NYU Division of Medical Humanities and the Bellevue Literary Press. Erika Goldman, the publisher and editorial director of the Bellevue Literary Press, moderated the session. Jane Tylus, faculty director of the NYU Center for Humanities, provided opening and closing remarks. The evening also had support from the Pulitzer Prize Campfire Initiative.

David Oshinsky's book, Polio: An American History (Oxford University Press) won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in History, as well as the Hoover Presidential Book Award in 2005. It became the basis for a 2009 PBS documentary on polio. In 2010, Paul Harding's book, Tinkers (Bellevue Literary Press) won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction and a PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize. Drawing from their respective genres in the humanities, the authors shed light on how chronic illnesses can affect individuals and their families, in the case of Harding's novel, and on how epidemics can affect populations and national responses in the case of Oshinsky's history of polio.

In her annotation of Oshinsky's book in the NYU Literature Art and Medicine Database, Dr. Janice Willms notes that the narrative was written in a way that readers were easily able to grasp how it was "real people fighting a battle that swept from certain success to likely failure and back again many times, often almost overnight." Dr. Tony Miksanek, in his annotation of Harding's book, focuses on how the "story presents some exquisite impressions of seizures along with the aura that precedes them," and how it "masterfully represents how we measure life."


Both authors spoke of creating narratives that convey a truth, yet their sources for truth are antipodal in nature. As an historian and documentarian, Oshinsky goes to archives and other sources of objective facts and occurrences to build his narrative. He told the audience that in creating his narratives, "not only am I telling a story, but I am fitting into a larger mosaic of other stories." He read a section from his book about a particular polio victim, Fred Snite, that interweaves both the personal suffering and social responses his plight generated.

He had lost the ability to cough so his throat had to be regularly suctioned. He had to be fed in rhythm with the respirator which caused his chest to rise and fall every four seconds, 21,600 times a day. But that was only part of the story, the lesser part. What kept Snite in the public eye was his determination to lead "an otherwise normal life." He became a tournament-tough bridge player, reading the cards in a rearview mirror placed above his head. He traveled to race tracks and to college football games in a trailer equipped with a spare iron lung. "His arrival at Notre Dame Stadium was one of the events of the afternoon," a friend recalled, "Enter the visiting team, polite cheers, enter the home team, loud cheers, enter Frederick, pandemonium." (p. 63)

Oshinsky lamented that as an historian he can't take the liberties availed to novelists, but Harding noted, in referring to this passage, that he is actually "deploying the same tactic as a fiction writer." Harding was allowing that the historian must work from facts and documents, but like the fiction writer, must create compelling narratives if the goal is to reach the general public.


As a novelist, Harding builds his narratives from what he calls "imaginative truth." He starts by "imagining my way into the lives of people…whose lives might otherwise pass by unremarked. The value of their lives would not be witness to." In Tinkers, he imagines his way into the life of a person with severe epilepsy and what it must be like to experience a seizure. He gives witness to the experience in the section he read (or "tone poem" as he called it):

The aura, the sparkle and tingle of an oncoming fit, was not the lightningait was the cooked air that the lightning pushed in front of itself. The actual seizure was when the bolt touched flesh, and in an instant so atomic, so nearly immaterial, nearly incorporeal, that there was almost no before and after, no cause A that led to effect B, but instead simply A, simply B, with no then in between, and Howard became pure, unconscious energy. It was like the opposite of death, or a bit of the same thing death was, but from a different direction: Instead of being emptied or extinguished to the point of unselfness, Howard was over-filled, overwhelmed to the same state. If death was to fall below some human boundary, so his seizures were to be rocketed beyond it. (pp. 47-48)

Harding said he assiduously avoided doing any research about epilepsy, and had only some family mythology and his own close call with electrocution to inform his writing. But, although the seizure experience he describes was mostly mined from his imagination, it covers basically the same scope as a traditional biomedical description of seizures that can be found in Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine-minus the literary splendor:

Some patients describe vague premonitory symptoms in the hours leading up to the seizure…The initial phase of the seizure is usually tonic contraction of muscles throughout the body, accounting for a number of the classic features of the event. Tonic contraction of the muscles of expiration and the larynx at the onset will produce a loud moan or "ictal cry." Respirations are impaired, secretions pool in the oropharynx, and cyanosis develops. Contraction of the jaw muscles may cause biting of the tongue. A marked enhancement of sympathetic tone leads to increases in heart rate, blood pressure, and pupillary size. After 10-20 seconds, the tonic phase of the seizure typically evolves into the clonic phase, produced by the superimposition of periods of muscle relaxation on the tonic muscle contraction.

Thus, Oshinsky and Harding compose compelling narratives about illness experiences originating from different places and evolving from different forms. In her forward to Humanity in Healthcare: The Heart and Soul of Medicine, Iona Heath captures the essence of what the varied approaches Oshinsky and Harding use when she states, "skilled writers help us to see the world and our own place within it in a new light-a light that falls from a slightly different direction revealing subtly different detail." (p. iv)
These are just a few of the many insights the authors provided during the session.
A video of the entire program is available at:



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

March 23, 2016 at 1:17 pm


NYU Langone Medical Center welcomed author/painter Cortney Davis to the Smilow gallery for the opening of "When the Nurse Becomes a Patient." Laura Ferguson's interview with Ms. Davis appears here.

Exhibition presented at the NYU Langone Medical Center Art Gallery by the Art Program and Collection.
Photo: Art Program and Collection.


Medical Humanities and Live Theater. See It Now!

October 6, 2010 at 2:33 pm

For those living in or near New York City, there are unusual opportunities to attend plays that bear directly on individual experiences of illness, altered bodily states, and the cultural and social context in which those alterations occur.

Still playing is Tony Kushner’s Angels in America at the Signature Theater Company."This play explores "the state of the nation"-the sexual, racial, religious, political and social issues confronting the country during the Reagan years, as the AIDS epidemic spreads. .. Characters in the play struggle to find meaning in a world apparently abandoned by God."
See annotation

Through December 19 is Harold Pinter’s A Kind of Alaska, together with The Collection at the Classic Stage Company. The play is partly based on Oliver Sacks’s book, Awakenings.

Recently closed: Wings, by Arthur Kopit: See annotation; Three Women, by Sylvia Plath: See annotation; Photograph 51, by Anna Ziegler (The race to understand the structure of DNA, with scientist Rosalind Franklin as a central character).

Posted by Felice Aull, Ph.D., M.A.

A Summer of Books

July 6, 2010 at 2:51 pm

Commentary by Felice Aull, Ph.D, M.A., Editor, Literature, Arts, and Medicine Database
. Now that summer is upon us, I hope you have access to a cool, restful place where you can burrow into a book and get lost in it. Here are some books I read during the past year or so that I found particularly absorbing, listed in no particular order. Perhaps some will appeal to you as well.

Novel, Await Your Reply, by Dan Chaon. A suspenseful, dark story of identity in which three parallel narratives eventually find each other. (Now available in paperback)

Nonfiction, Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers. A harrowing story, told simply and directly but with growing menace, of what happened to one Muslim American family during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. The hurricane was the least of their traumas. (Now available in paperback)

Novel, A Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore "Ms. Moore has written her most powerful book yet, a book that gives us an indelible portrait of a young woman coming of age in the Midwest in the year after 9/11 and her initiation into the adult world of loss and grief." Michiko Kakutani, New York Times book review. (Now available in paperback)

Novel, A Person of Interest, by Susan Choi. "…say[s] something about what it means to live in a society that is simultaneously tolerant and suspicious, inclusive and all too ready to punish its citizens for the crime of being their authentic selves . . . making us feel deeply for characters who are profoundly flawed. . . . beautifully written. Choi's precise, cadenced prose alternates between plain-spokenness and lyrical dazzle." Francine Prose, New York Times book review. (Available in paperback)

Short Story Collection by Jhumpa Lahiri, Unaccustomed Earth. "Most of Lahiri’s insightful writings concern the betwixt and between challenges associated with immigration and with generational shifts. This collection of engaging and beautifully written stories examines both challenges." Lois LaCivita Nixon, Literature, Arts, and Medicine Database. (Available in paperback)

Novel, Then Came the Evening, by Brian Hart. The author’s first novel is a story of people living harsh lives in the harshly beautiful landscape of Idaho. "Quietly exceptional". . . short review in the New Yorker.

Poetry: Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty, by Tony Hoagland. Hoagland is witty and observant as he focuses relentlessly on contemporary American culture.

Poetry: My Life As a Doll, by Elizabeth Kirschner. The speaker spins out "a narrative of embattled childhood" and its long-range effects.

Immigration in the News

April 28, 2010 at 4:56 pm

Immigration is much in the news these days. The law that was passed in Arizona will, according to many legal experts, certainly be challenged as unconstitutional, and one hopes that the courts will strike it down. Perhaps we should all do as Linda Greenhouse suggested: wear buttons that say "I could be illegal." Greenhouse wrote (in a recent New York Times Op Ed piece) that she was glad she had already seen the Grand Canyon because she wasn’t planning to return to Arizona. As someone who has regularly enjoyed the spectacular scenery in that state and hiked many a trail there, I am in distress about the politics of the place and torn about going back.
Felice Aull

Below is a link to a commentary about immigration and heath care, "Immigrants, patients have unique stories", by physician author Danielle Ofri. Ofri is Associate Professor of Medicine at New York University School of Medicine, editor of The Bellevue Literary Review, and author most recently of Medicine in Translation: Journeys with My Patients.

Sherman Alexie Wins PEN/Faulkner Award

March 24, 2010 at 11:18 am

I’d like to call attention to yesterday’s announcement of the 2010 PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction, Author Sherman Alexie is the winner for fiction (War Dances, annotated in the Literature, Arts, and Medicine Database) and if you haven’t read any of his work you are missing a treat. He is a prolific author of essays, fiction, poetry, and also wrote three screenplays. Figuring in much of his work are his experiences as a Coeur d’Alene/Spokane Indian who lived on the "rez" interfacing with "white" society and who continues to span these borders off the reservation. His style and point of view are unique — humorous, perceptive, original, pointed, poignant. Coincidentally, I had just finished annotating and posting the film, Smoke Signals, for which Alexie wrote the screenplay, when I learned that he was the recipient of this award. Every time I watch that film I find something new to savor so I was particularly pleased to learn of this award.

Felice Aull

Narrative Medicine: A New York Physician Blogs From Haiti

January 25, 2010 at 6:24 pm

I can’t help calling attention to a blog being written by Dr. Fritz Francois, an internist at NYU School of Medicine, who helped to coordinate a team of physicians, including himself, who are currently helping out in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti. In addition to providing medical assistance, Dr. Francois is translating from Creole to English and vice versa. His blog is well-written, observant, and thoughtful. In addition to Nice Wife, see also, for example, Priming the Senses.