Painting the Brain
Rachel Hammer is a third-year medical student and MFA candidate at the Mayo Clinic, and a guest blogger on the Literature, Arts, and Medicine blog.
Medical students are in the process of a professional transformation, and it can be cathartic to express those transformations artistically. One’s conceptions of medicine, self, and one’s professional identity may cycle through a myriad of forms The Mayo Clinic College of Medicine student interest groups in the humanities and in neurology partnered with the local art museum to host an evening entitled “Paint the Brain” in February 2011. This event consisted of an open invitation to medical students to paint their creative interpretations of the nervous system and the way it creates our human experience. The painting session was preceded by a brief presentation on art theory given by the art center’s resident educator, Jason Pearson. Medical student, Lauren Jansons, then spoke on artists whose work has been affected by neurological conditions. Nearly forty paintings were generated.
The majority of the pieces were acrylic on canvas, some were mixed media using fabric, photography, duct tape, or water color. Examples of the artwork include: Andy Warhol-like portrayals of the midbrain, traditional Hmong art as neural gyri, trees of neurons, butterflies emerging from a woman’s gut, abstract brains, the landscape of bare calvarium, and one’s self portrait in the context of an aura. The paintings were shown on campus for National Brain Awareness Week and at the American Society of Bioethics and Humanities in October 2011. We repeated the painting session in January 2012 with a new topic: global health. Similarly, students were instructed to portray their own representation on the topic. Examples of the artwork from this session included: cervical dysplasia cells as an African mountain range, the earth upheld by many different hands, a closed water bottle hovering in a desert landscape, a woman’s portrait overlaid with an anatomical heart, a hospital among gravestones, and a woman looking from a mountain top onto a sea of fog.
Feedback from both sessions was positive. From the first, the neurology student leader reflected, “My painting was inspired by the awe and wonder that filled me as I examined the anatomy of the skull for the first time. The bony cavity that cradles our brains is literally the seat of our conscious human experience and I find the architecture itself very dynamic. The vibrant colors and clear brush-strokes in this painting pay tribute to the constant pulse and flow of vitality through our minds, allowing us to appreciate each new thing.”
Another student, a first year, Christine Tran, had this to say: “The painting session allowed me to carve time out of my busy schedule to mindfully focus on something other than the pathophysiology of disease processes or how one cell communicated with another. I didn’t realize it when I signed up to paint but this was a much-needed escape to refresh my mind. I needed to remind myself that… it was possible – and even necessary — to slow down and spend two hours finding just the right shade of beige to paint the contours of a woman’s face, and then to spend another hour giving her hair, highlights, and delicate tendrils. In fact, I enjoyed the exercise so much that when I didn’t complete my painting during the first three allotted hours, I walked back to the museum later in the week in snowy, ten degree weather to spend more time with my painting.”
Physicians were invited to both sessions, but very few attended. From the second session, Dr. James Newman commented, “A blank canvas, an unlimited supply of acrylic paint, brushes, and a convivial crew of fellow artists-to-be. The topic was World Health… For me, having painted for many years, but not having touched a brush for too long to contemplate, this was a reawakening. I can’t wait for next time.”
Shakespeare once penned, “My nature is subdued to what it works in, like the dyer’s hand.” So our minds are colored by the mediums we work in. It is refreshing, for a change, to allow color to do what thoughts do.