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In a florescent-lit, nondescript classroom at the UC San Diego School of Medicine, medical students sketch live nude models.
Later in the quarter, the students sketch real human skeletons. By the end of the class, they head down to the bottom floor of the school to draw cadavers.
It’s a gruesome progression that the instructors say jolts many of the students. It isn’t the first time the students have seen or worked on dead bodies, but the three-hour drawing session, counterintuitively, can be more jarring than actually cutting open the bodies.
During a dissection, bodies are covered in cloths and the students often focus on just one small part of the body, which allows for some dissociation. But for the drawing lesson, they see the whole person and spend hours sketching intimate details.
Students notice things, like bruises from the IV lines put in during the patient’s last stay in the hospital, tattoos and scars from past surgeries. The details the students note while drawing makes the bodies more vividly human. Students begin imagining their life stories and personalities. Many find themselves thinking about how incredible it is that the dead have donated their bodies to the medical school in the name of science and learning.
Sometimes, the students’ emotions get the best of them, and they break down.
“You notice the change in the room,” said Larry Kline, one of two new artists-in-residence at UC San Diego School of Medicine. “The first thing you notice is the initial shock from seeing the body. … Then it becomes something different, and there is this relationship that forms.”
The other artist in residence is Debby Kline, Kline’s wife. The med school’s drawing class is part of the artist-in-residence program, which was launched by San Diego artist Joyce Cutler-Shaw in 1992.
Cutler-Shaw is a multimedia artist whose expansive and diverse body of work often focuses on the lifecycle, death and dying. In the ‘80s and early ‘90s, Cutler-Shaw lost four people who were close to her in a short period of time. In a documentary about her and her work, Cutler-Shaw said each death was so uniquely different, that she fixated on the subject.
While getting her masters of fine arts from UC San Diego, Cutler-Shaw found her way to the medical school. She said she spent hours in the labs there sketching dead bodies and bones.
As her visits increased, the dean of the medical school at the time started getting uncomfortable, and told Cutler-Shaw she’d have to come up with an official, school-sanctioned reason to be there. She came up with the idea of an artist residency, and said the dean immediately saw it as an opportunity to turn some heads, since no other medical schools at the time were doing anything like it.
The rest of his staff, though, wasn’t immediately interested in the idea, she said.
“The faculty committee was a stoney-faced bunch,” Cutler-Shaw recalled in an email.
But she persisted, and the program launched as the first of its kind. Now medical schools across the world have artists in residence, or offer medical students courses in humanities and the arts.
Typically, artist residencies last for a few months, or a year at most. Cutler Shaw’s lasted for 25 years. Some of her most well-known works related to the residency include a series of drawings of skeletons and bones called “The Anatomy Lesson” and “The Alphabet of Bones,” lettering she created by using anatomically accurate drawings of messenger pigeon’s leg bones.
Much of Cutler-Shaw’s work is the subject of a big retrospective exhibition showing at both the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library and UC San Diego’s Geisel Library.
In 2014, Cutler-Shaw was diagnosed with a progressive neurological disorder that, among other things, affects her speech. By 2015, her declining health made teaching the drawing class impossible, so she asked the Klines to take over. And this year, she decided it was time to pass the baton altogether – she asked the Klines to succeed her as the med school’s new artists-in-residence, and to do something similar and find another artist or artist team once they’re ready to move on. She said she wants the med school’s artist residency program to continue forever, and there’s talk of naming it after her soon.
Cutler-Shaw and the Klines said the goal of the drawing class is not to turn doctors into artists, but to build empathy through art. The students will go on to be doctors, and the goal is to make them doctors who care.
“If you’ve ever been to an appointment where the doctor was a little bit too busy to listen, that’s what we’re trying to counteract,” said Debby Kline.
The drawing course is just one piece of the program. The rest is more open-ended, and comes with a small stipend that allows the artist or artists to liven up the medical school by creating installations, and to interact with students in other creative ways. There’s also an ongoing “Art and Medicine” lecture series that Cutler-Shaw, and now the Klines, help curate.
One art project the Klines said they want to bring into the medical school is called “The Candy Store,” their collection of ceramic sculptures made with medicines like Vicodin and Oxycontin baked into the glazes. The installation provokes viewers to think about topics like over-prescribing medication and access to health care.
The Klines, conceptual artists with a knack for staging political and science-based installations, said they’ve already seen what the art class can do for medical students. They said they look forward to coming up with other ideas for installations and art projects that’ll encourage students to stop for a moment and think about something other than their heavy course loads.
“In some ways, the students have to learn the clinical, and they have to divorce themselves from the humanity,” said Debby Kline. “But it’s important to kind of infuse it back in.”