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"Deconstructed Pain:" Medicine meets fine arts

Gernod_Weis_Oel_auf_Leinwand_150x200_1995Stanford's medical school is just steps away from Stanford’s arts corridor, home to the Cantor Art Museum and the newly opened Anderson Collection at Stanford. This proximity results in a cathartic intersection between the arts and medicine, a connection captured by two recent events sponsored by Stanford’s Medicine & the Muse Program in Medical Humanities and the Arts.

The first event featured doctors and medical students reading poems they had written that were inspired by the paintings in the Anderson Collection at Stanford. The poetry reading included a performance by Stanford’s Musicians in Residence, the St. Lawrence String Quartet.

The second event, a gallery talk titled Honoring the Ghosts, celebrated Veteran’s Day by exploring the relationship between war trauma and art, through the paintings of the late Frank Lobdell, a World War II veteran and Stanford emeritus professor. The gallery talk, the first to take place in the Anderson Collection at Stanford, was an interdisciplinary event sponsored by Medicine & the Muse, the Stanford Arts Institute and the Anderson Collection. The event drew an overflow crowd, including World War II Veteran Genero Felice, Stanford student veteran Steven Barg and his wife, Shannon, also a veteran and Stanford physican John Scandling, MD, who majored in art history as an undergraduate.

The talk was introduced by Alexandar Nemerov of Stanford's Art & Art History Department. Nemerov’s father, Howard Nemerov, was a World War II veteran who wrote about his war experiences, eventually winning a Pulitzer Prize for poetry. The audience listened intently as Sarah Naftalis, a doctoral student in Art & Art History, described Lobdell’s horrific World War II experiences: Part of a liberating party for the concentration camps in Germany, Lobdell's unit came upon a burned barn full of concentration camp victims the Nazis did not want to be freed.

That experience influenced Lobdell’s work, and indeed, he stated that he worked out his war trauma “on the canvas.”

War trauma was also explored in the art, poetry and music event, when Hans Steiner, MD, used Jackson Pollack’s Lucifer as inspiration for his poem dedicated to his relatives killed in World War II.

Medical student Kendall Madden also explored the dilemma of patients facing poverty, domestic abuse and loss in her poem inspired by the painting Four Women by David Park in 1959. An excerpt:

Only broad outlines and no face,
she sees herself, or
is this how she is seen?

In the body is
her deconstructed pain
unreflected, unstill.

Four women
only forms.

Are four women enough?

Medical student Larissa Miyachi said she appreciated the opportunity to write and present poetry: “During this process I thought about communicating with patients, and how important word choice is.”

Both events drew diverse audiences of students, doctors, veterans, community members and Stanford faculty. Watching the audience eagerly take a closer look at Lobdell’s paintings, as physicians spoke to Naftalis about her interpretation of the art, Audrey Shafer, MD, director of the Medicine & the Muse program smiled and said, “This is the magic that can happen at Stanford.”

Previously: For group of Stanford doctors, writing helps them "make sense" of their experiences, Abraham Verghese discusses stealing metaphors and the language of medicine at TEDMED, Medical students and author Khaled Hosseini share their muse with Stanford community and Intersection of arts and medicine a benefit to both, report finds
Image by M.V. Herrmann

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