Art and Medicine Unite in ‘Walk Back to Your Body’ Showcase

Photo by Kate Drakulic

At first glance, medical science and art may not appear to have anything in common. Yet, a new partnership between the University of Minnesota Medical School and the Weisman Art Museum (WAM) proved last week that the two disciplines, whether using a scalpel or a paintbrush, share identical motivations—creativity and experimentation.

“If artists and researchers who work on similar questions could join their creative powers, we would become much better at addressing the important issues that we face today,” said Boris Oicherman, the WAM’s Cindy and Jay Ihlenfeld for curator for creative collaboration. “The problem we are facing is that we—as an institution, museum, university, society—do not have the mechanisms for adequate support of sustained creative collaborations across sectors. The incredible achievement of the project we are celebrating here tonight is that, over the last year and a half, we have developed a working model for such a mechanism.”

That model began in Fall 2018 when four artists and five medical researchers banded together to discover how one’s artistic prowess and another’s medical expertise could blend together. Their findings, presented one year later at the “Walk Back to Your Body” exhibition in the WAM’s Target Studio last week, showed promise for a future where medical practice and creative collaboration unite.

“I treat children and adults with cancer and other very difficult-to-treat conditions. I use my medical education in about 50% of what I do in my clinic. The other 50% is figuring out how to tell a young girl, my patient, that she’s going to miss a year of her life, she’s going to lose her hair and she may or may not have children,” said Medical School Dean Jakub Tolar while opening the WAM’s exhibition event. “In learning to understand how to connect emotionally with a patient, you can learn more from the body language of people in paintings by Goya and Hopper; from the words of Cordelia to her father, King Lear; and from the emotion in Maria Callas’ voice as she sings about loss of freedom, than you will ever learn in a medical textbook. Artists give us a new way of seeing. The influence of arts and humanities across the sciences is something we need to reconstitute, to rebuild, to rediscover because that is what makes both of those parts much more valuable. Tonight, we are repositioning the way art and science intertwine.”

The event and collaboration, sponsored by the Medical School, hosted more than 40 people for the exhibition’s culminating night. Visitors held each other’s heartbeats in their hands, rested alongside strangers, wore garments imitating the realities of age and listened to poetry focused on improving mental health.

Dancing and Aging

Dance artist Anna Marie Shogren partnered with Kristine Talley, PhD, RN, GNP-BC, an associate professor in the U of M School of Nursing, to demonstrate how dancers and caregivers share a common bond in geriatric care. The duo’s work led to a performance piece where visitors danced wearing garments, including neuropathy gloves and a shoulder impingement shirt, that helped them virtually experience an aging body.

Poetry Healing Mental Illness

Poet Yuko Taniguchi, a professor at U of M Rochester, met Kathryn Cullen, MD, an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry, to innovate on the idea that art improves the lives of patients with mental illness. Together, they demonstrated that theory, using poetry as a way to begin changing adolescents’ perspectives on their lives—a healing that started by discovering a new, positive identity: I am an artist.

“We have our treatments that are useful for most adolescents with depression, but there are those patients that don’t respond to the treatments that we have and need something different,” said Dr. Cullen at the event. “We have some adolescents who get really stuck in their thinking and the scope of their world as it narrows. What can we do to inspire these adolescents—to shake them out of this stuck thinking? That’s why I got so excited about my collaboration with Yuko, and we decided to try to implement this creative writing program for adolescents.”

A Heartbeat in Your Hand

Artist Alison Hiltner and two Medical School faculty used art to make it possible for two people to experience one heartbeat. Her partners, Paul Iaizzo, PhD, the principal investigator of the Visible Heart Laboratories in the Department of Surgery, and Brenda Ogle, PhD, director of the Stem Cell Institute, helped Hiltner develop an object that transfers one person’s heartbeat to an object, that when held by another in their own hands, can be felt beating.

“In collaborating with Alison, the trainees in my lab and I acquired a new lens through which we could view our work, solve critical challenges in our work and share our work with others,” Dr. Ogle said. "We considered why and how a cell in isolation is the same and different from an organism in isolation.”

Resting in the ‘Daydream Chapel’

A piece focused on rest, called the “Daydream Chapel,” created a space for visitors to pause, lie down and “go off the clock.” Designed by Social Practice Artist Peng Wu and Michael Howell, MD, an associate professor in the Department of Neurology, this installation merged Dr. Howell’s background in sleep research with Wu’s own issues with sleeping.

“Working with Peng Wu and the other Weisman artists has been one of the great joys of my career,” said Dr. Howell. “Exploring the culture of sleep in artistic form has given me unique insight my patients and how their sleep problems affect them.”

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