Using the arts and humanities to inspire multi-layered understandings of the experience of illness and health is the primary focus of Dalhousie Medical School’s Medical Humanities Program. For the past five months, the program’s artist-in-residence Julie Adamson Miller has embraced this challenge by engaging the hearts and minds of Dal medical students in a variety of innovative ways.
At the height of December end-of-term stress and exam anxiety, Ms. Miller installed her Anti Depression Chamber (Happiness Shelter) in the foyer of the Tupper Building. Any student passing through the lobby en route to classes or the library had a chance to de-stress by entering this large, curved, tubular, tent-like chamber featuring white, luminescent nylon walls with bold, brightly painted floral patterns by Barry Roode of Mushaboom Design.
Ms. Miller explores issues of anxiety and depression from a positive, healing perspective by providing this “mood altering space where one has an opportunity to engage the senses and experience physical pleasure.”
The art installation also acted as a forum for the exchange of ideas and experiences on depression. More than 150 medical students responded to Miller’s question “What is your antidote to depression?” by posting ideas on sticky notes to the display stand beside the Anti Depression Chamber. Students’ strategies included reading, dancing, listening to music, baking cookies, eating chocolates and sipping wine.
Currently installed in the Tupper Link for one more week, is another art installation called The X-ray Shelter. It consists of human x-rays stitched together to form the ‘skin’ that covers a compact greenhouse frame structure which one can walk inside. Once inside, viewers can readily see the flesh and bone anatomical details of the arms, legs, pelvis and abdomen of the various patients who donated their x-rays for this shelter, yet their individual stories remain a mystery.
In Ms. Miller’s view, “the x-rays lit from the outside mimic the appearance of stained glass and bring to mind that the body is a temple which under the right conditions can mend and heal.”
That was, in fact, how various medical students responded to the art installation. One first-year med student said The X-Ray Shelter “felt like a spiritual space, a calm, meditative space on the body. The body really is our temple, our home, and yet we often take our bodies and health for granted. I liked the subtle message of The X-ray shelter – it really is a good thing to take a few moments to reflect on our bodies in this way.”
Tree of Life
The scope of Ms. Miller’s art work on health and well-being extended its reach from projects for Dalhousie medical students, faculty and staff to projects for hospital patients. Her Tree of Life mural project at the Camp Hill Veteran’s Memorial Building saw day patients painting wooden bird silhouettes created by Ms. Miller. The painted birds will be placed on a wall mural of trees Ms. Miller commissioned Lynda McConnell to paint.
The Tree of Life mural adds a pleasing, nature-inspired, artful space to the hospital’s ground floor recreation room. As one elderly participant stated upon painting a robin for the tree mural, “This made my day. I didn’t even know I could paint before doing this. What fun!”
“Having artists-in-residence, like Julie Adamson Miller, adds wonderful dimensions of meaning around health and life for us in the field of medical education and it is hugely popular with medical students,” says Dr. Gerri Frager, Director of Dalhousie Medical Humanities HEALS Program. (HEALS stands for Healing and Education through Arts and Life Skills.)
The funding for this artist-in-residence Program was made possible through a grant from the Robert Pope Foundation.
Heather L. MacLeod is an associate researcher and education specialist with the Division of Medical Education, Dalhousie Faculty of Medicine.
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