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The Fine Art of Healing

March 3, 2011

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Pre-med students at Baylor University are scrutinizing art by such greats as Rembrandt and Picasso in search of dilated pupils and jaundiced skin.

The students are creating self-portraits and fashioning baskets from yarn and jute.

They will study art therapy done by patients trying to improve manual skills after strokes or injuries -- or simply to express pain and loneliness. And they will work with patients and practitioners at a clinic to design art for a healing atmosphere.

Baylor University is venturing into new territory with an ambitious new undergraduate class called Visual Arts and Healing. The class -- intended to serve as a model for other universities and medical schools -- explores virtually every way art has a bearing on medicine, its creators say.

"What Baylor's doing is pretty amazing," said mixed-media artist Mindy Nierenberg, a consultant with the Society for the Arts in Healthcare in Washington, D.C. As a grant-funded adviser, she worked with Dr. Karen Pope, historian of 19th-century art at Baylor, and Linda Bostwick, a family nurse practitioner in health services at Baylor, to compose the curriculum for the new course.

The role of imagination and creativity in medicine has captured increasing attention in the past decade. While some health professionals remain skeptical, a growing number of medical schools are exploring medical humanities programs that include literature and medicine, philosophy of medicine, history of medicine and religion and medicine.

Baylor is a step ahead by offering a medical humanities major at the undergraduate level for students who plan to become doctors, nurses, therapists and medical administrators. And the latest addition -- a three-hour elective in which they immerse themselves in art -- will move them ahead even faster, Nierenberg predicted.

"Having students make art increases their creative thinking skills," Nierenberg said. "The way medical students are trained is very linear. You come up with a problem and solution. Artists have multiple paths. Thinking outside the box is what's needed."

Barely had enrollment opened for the spring 2011 class before it was packed, with a waiting list and emails flying as students vied for a spot, Pope said.

"This has just had magic," Bostwick said. "Art faculty members said, 'Yeah, we'll come on board.'"

They were intrigued by the idea that the arts "comfort, console and sustain" patients -- a finding in a survey of the country's hospitals done by Americans for the Arts, the Society for Arts in Healthcare and the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Heathcare Organizations.

Numerous hospitals in Boston, California and New York fund art collections, hire art consultants and engage major artists and even patients to create art for medical settings, Nierenberg said. Guest lecturers from other cities who work in art consulting or art therapy also will speak to Baylor students.

Dr. Mary Ruth Smith, a professor of fiber art at Baylor, teaches a session called "Stitches and Staples." In it, students "coil" baskets , honing their dexterity with large needles, jute and yarn. Smith noted that World War II Italian medic Alberto Burri created art of sutures and cloth while he was a prisoner of war.

Leah Force, a Baylor lecturer in art with a background in two- and three-dimensional art, will aid students as they design art proposals for the Family Health Center in Waco.

"This isn't just buying a print and slapping it on the wall," Force said. "We want them to take a thoughtful approach, to consider the space, the needs, the time and money and materials they'll have to work with. You're looking for an uplifting theme, because going to the doctor can be very stressful."

Studying art also enhances powers of observation, said Dr. Katie Edwards, an assistant professor of art at Baylor, who is leading self-portrait sessions with students.

"How people represent themselves in art can be much more metaphorical than anatomical," she said. "That crosses over into medicine. You're not always dealing with literal charts and diagrams and blood levels. You have to pay attention."

Internist and bestselling author Dr. Abraham Verghese, a professor at Stanford University Medical School, sees the medical humanities as a way to preserve the sensitivity of medical school students, which may be repressed through their rigorous science training and overlooked in a high-tech era. In weekly beside rounds, he examines patients without knowledge of their diagnoses to demonstrate the wealth of information available using observational skills during physical exams.

"One of the first ways visual arts came to be in medicine was taking students to museums, viewing portraits to diagnose the people in paintings -- simply training your eyes to see," Nierenberg said.

Students tackled "visual thinking strategy," making methodical inventories to study mystery paintings from Rembrandt's time and argue for or against authorship by Rembrandt. And two weeks of class will be spent with Julia Hitchcock, an associate profess or art, to see what she and other modern artists say about the health care system through their art.

Creating art also can foster empathy, too, because "it's humbling," Edwards said. "I have my non-major students make self-portraits, and sometimes they're embarrassed. They can be stellar, top students, but some find themselves drawing like children."

David Windler, 21, of Bossier City, La., a senior medical humanities major who plans to become a physician, said he has been surprised and delighted by the course's depth.

"I thought it was going to be art therapy from start to finish, but then they starting telling us about visual thinking strategies, really noticing details," he said. "Every week was different from the week before.

"This can help you see a patient as a person and not a biological specimen. I think it could be a good way to ground yourself, center yourself, before going on hospital rounds . . . So many physicians say they wish they had this foundation."

Contact: Terry Goodrich, Assistant Director of Media Communications, (254) 710-3321

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