Understanding illness through art

  • Mark Gilbert (seated, center) talks about portraiture with Visual Arts students during his visit to Interlochen.

  • Visual Arts students in the Aesthetics of Health class visit the Cowell Cancer Center.

  • Artist Mark Gilbert (second from right) speaks with Interlochen's Aesthetics of Health class at the Cowell Cancer Center in Traverse City.

Academy Visual Arts Instructor Megan Hildebrandt, inspired by her own diagnosis, builds the Aesthetics of Health class.

For the past several months, students in the Aesthetics of Health class have been partnering with Munson Medical Center’s Cowell Cancer Center to explore how art can help cancer patients during their battle with the disease.

Visual arts instructor Megan Hildebrandt first developed the idea for the class and partnership when she moved to Traverse City from Texas a year ago. Hildebrandt was diagnosed with cancer during her first week of graduate school; for the next several years, Hildebrandt continued to study during her treatment, often making the trek from her studio to her chemotherapy sessions. 

“I understood my MFA in light of my chemo,” she said. “They were very mashed together in my experience. A lot of my work was about the illness narrative of diagnosis and treatment.” 

Hildebrandt arrived at Interlochen just before the Cowell Cancer Center opened. Seeking the sense of community that she had had in Texas, Hildebrandt began looking for ways that Interlochen could collaborate with the Center. Hildebrandt pitched the idea to Visual Arts Division Director Mindy Ronayne, who enthusiastically agreed.

Hildebrandt and her colleagues wanted the partnership to be more than a one-time experience for the students, what fellow Visual Arts instructor Johnson Hunt likes to call “shotgun outreach.” The result was Aesthetics of Health, a class designed to enhance and expand the students’ on-site experiences.

Unlike traditional Visual Arts classes, Aesthetics of Health focuses comparatively little on artistic technique. Instead, the students explore the physical and emotional toll of disease and practice reflective techniques. Before the students made the first visit to the Cowell Cancer Center, Hildebrandt brought in several guests, including a social worker and a cancer survivor, to prepare the students for what they could expect working with cancer patients. Hildebrandt also taught the students reflective practices such as journaling. “This is a very emotionally heavy topic,” she said. “Journaling helps reflect on the emotional journey that each of these students is taking.” Most important, however, is the emphasis on interpersonal skills and empathy. 

Later in the semester, Hildebrandt brought a special guest to work with the young artists: Scottish artist Mark Gilbert. Gilbert began painting clinical portraits in 2001 when maxillofacial surgeon Iain Hutchison invited him to portray his patients. What began as a statement of the efficacy of facial reconstructive surgery became Gilbert’s passion. Since then, Gilbert has continued to study the relationship of art and medicine and to paint portraits of medical patients. During his one-week residency, Gilbert worked with the students both in the studio and on site at the Cowell Family Cancer Center. Before their trip to the Cancer Center, Gilbert offered a few words of advice on interacting with patients and their caregivers.

“We’re all going to be patients and caregivers at some point in our lives,” he said. “It’s a truism that we all have to embrace, and it’s not necessarily a negative thing.”

Hildebrandt hand-selected most of the students in the class based on their personalities, past experience in the medical field and interest in the topic. Other students were self-selecting. “One of my students is very interested in being a doctor, but is also very interested in art,” Hildebrandt said. “Another student, who lives in China, had several family members who had cancer. Because of the culture in China, he wasn’t allowed to talk about it with his family.” Several other students have family ties to cancer, and find the class a welcome way to help them process their feelings and experiences.

The class visits the Cowell Cancer Center once per month. The students begin each session by shadowing the greeter in the atrium of the Center. “By working with the greeters, the students are being taught the art of reading people and reading their body signals,” said Hildebrandt.

The students continue their visits by making art in the Center’s waiting room. While some students make portraits of doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals, others capture the view from the room’s windows. Although the students have not yet begun portraiture of the patients themselves, they still have an impact on patients and their caregivers through their presence.

“Just by being here, we’re invoking something other than dread,” said Hildebrandt.

Students will continue to visit Cowell Cancer Center throughout the year. The project will culminate in a public art proposal, which will be released in the spring of 2017.