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Art Practice and Bringing Emotions to Life in the Anatomy Lab: The Story of an Artist in Residence (AIR)

Article text
Art Practice and Bringing Emotions to Life in the Anatomy Lab: The Story of an Artist in Residence (AIR)
Creative Arts in Humane Medicine book, The International Journal of The Creative Arts in Interdisciplinary Practice, Canada

Creative Arts in Humane Medicine book
The International Journal of the Creative Arts in Interdisciplinary Practice (IJCAIP)


“The role of the artist is to challenge, change and provoke science…”
John McLachlan

This article presents visual artwork and creative engagement from projects related to my practice as a fine artist and researcher working in the field of medical education and medical humanities during my time as an Artist in Residence (AIR) at university anatomy and clinical skills laboratories in the North East of England, UK .

Project ANATOME emerged from my interest in opening "up" (ANA) and "a cutting" (TOME) of anatomical and medical pedagogy to create a dialogue between artistic methodologies, the sensory approach to anatomy and clinical studies and the undergraduate experience of medical education. The outcomes of the project take shape as artworks for exhibitions and events, academic papers for interdisciplinary conferences and symposiums contributing to the field of medical humanities, published articles with artworks, and creative activities engaging with undergraduate medicine.

Launched in 2011, the project is centred on the collaboration between myself (as artist) and anatomy lecturer Dr. Gabrielle Finn at the School of Medicine, Pharmacy and Health, Durham University supported by the Associate Dean of the undergraduate medicine programme, Professor John McLachlan. Both educators have widely published research on the application of art in undergraduate medicine and objective measures for medical student professionalism. A major component of this project has been to assume the role of AIR within their medical department to regularly observe teaching activity and interact with undergraduate medical students and educators. In addition, I have established this role within two other institutions in the North East of England; Newcastle Medical School where undergraduate medicine is delivered through a partnership between Newcastle and Durham Universities, and Northumbria University where a Diploma of Higher Education in Medical Sciences is delivered in partnership with the first year Postgraduate MD programme offered by St. George’s International School of Medicine, Grenada, West Indies.

John McLachlan upholds the belief in the valuable influence of art in medical training, emphasizing, “…the role of the artist is to challenge, change and provoke science.” (McLachlan 2009) At the heart of my artwork is the (re)presentation of the human body as the object of disease diagnosis and narrator of illness experience; drawing attention to modern bioethics and the (in)humane facets of modern medicine. I also wish to share with medical students, educators and allied health professionals how interaction with a visual artist and the process of art making can help explore perceptions and offer ways to express emotions to promote the practice of humane medicine.

My practice enters the field of medical humanities by situating itself in one of its defining movements; the use of visual arts in educating medical pedagogy, medical practice and health care. The empirical research I perform within medical education and further afield, highlights the problems, dilemmas and critical issues surrounding medicine today. Amalgamating these studies and AIR activity gives rise to visual art and literary work that offers new meanings and ways of conceiving humane medicine while exploring areas of bioethics, patient and doctor relationship, history of medicine and anatomy , and illness phenomenology.

A growing number of programs in medical institutions worldwide encourage students to explore their emotions through self-reflection, art, journaling, creative writing and group discussion (Coulehan et al., 1995, Marks et al., 1997, Stewart and Charon, 2002, Rizzolo, 2002). It is on these grounds I endorse the application of AIR in medical education. There is an importance for students to recognise, access, accept, and express emotions throughout their journey to doctor hood. Introspection is valuable, and facilitating group discussion about felt emotions amongst students gives them the opportunity to learn about the diverse perspectives of their classmates while offering opportunities to shape attitudes toward patient care (Rizzolo, 2002). The artist can facilitate such activities as life drawing, self-reflective art-making and writing – accompanied by lead discussions – and bring perspective to the complex environment where anatomy and medical education is taught. In this article I expand on the significance of medical students’ expressing emotions, and how my arts practice supports this.

In the following sections, I expand on the activity undertaken as AIR, the focus of Project ANATOME, the value of artistic intervention in medical education, and the envisioned advances towards humane medicine. Featured activities will include Specimen Life (death) Drawing, Patient Study Module, and Picturing Diagnosis; drawing inspiration from the field of medical humanities, illness phenomenology and the practice of Narrative Medicine. I will also present examples of artworks and exhibitions that have derived from Project ANATOME and AIR activity, and suggest how they too can educate medical students and educators, and contribute to the evolvement of humane medicine.