When I go see my doctor, I expect her to know something about the human body. I don’t really expect her to be an artist as well. However, studies have indicated that exposure to art and creative projects can enhance a physician’s communication, empathy and diagnostic skills. The art exhibition, White Coat, Warm Art, part of a conference on Medical Education at the Hyatt in downtown Vancouver, featured art by medical students from across the country. I was lucky to catch it during its two-and-half day run at the end of April. Hearing some of the remarkable creators talk about their work, I felt like they fell into three general categories: art inspired by medical studies, art in response to the practise of medicine, and art as an escape from medicine.
Art inspired by medical studies included the title piece of the exhibit, a Haida-style depiction of a liver, if you can imagine. I chatted briefly with its creator, Michiko Maruyama, who had been a toy designer before getting into medicine. She continues to apply her artistic skills on a blog, which showcases graphic interpretations of what she is learning in med school. She also had a wonderful watercolour that looked like two Japanese koi (carp), but also represented a cross section of the human heart. Other works inspired by medical studies included pen and ink drawings of internal organs with botanical embellishments and a painting, referencing the great anatomist Vesalius, of a corpse posed on a university campus. A medical student from New Brunswick crafted anatomical works of the hand and the skull by gluing thin strips of coloured paper onto board in swirling relief patterns—a process called quilling.
Art reflecting upon the practise of medicine included a multimedia piece, which was a colour photo of the medical student as an elderly patient, with the pencil drawn hands of an artist as his experienced practitioner. A photographic series depicted the challenges of being the mother of an infant while struggling to get through medical school. A sculpture of an anguished figure in scrubs with a heart bursting out of the chest with the Superman logo on it was an art therapy project dealing with the emotional stresses of surgical practice.
Some of the artists spoke of doing art as a way to cope with the stress of studying medicine. One piece was minutely detailed. It reminded me of a meditative sand mandala. One woman said that although she did not draw or sculpt, she enjoyed sewing, which had the practical benefit of giving her things to wear. I wondered if it affected her suturing technique. A man who created a painting of a young boy with an apple mentioned the dilemma he had in choosing between art school and medical school. The organizer, Dr Carol-Ann Corneya, noted the many benefits of mentors who pursue a serious interest in art alongside a respectable medical practice.
White Coat, Warm Art showed how bringing art and science together can be a beautiful thing.