Lessons in Anatomy: Dissecting medicine and health through visual and literary arts collaboration

Rachael Allen and Eliot North, November 2013 – July 2014

Drawing on her 2 years experience as artist in residence (AIR) at Newcastle, Northumbria and Durham University anatomy labs, and success as a multidisciplinary artist working within the fields of medicine, medical humanities and health, Rachael Allen has been awarded the New Collaboration Bursary from a-n (The Artist Information Company) to establish an innovative collaboration with Dr Eleanor Holmes; practicing GP, clinical educator and writer (pen name Eliot North).

Together they will investigate the creative potential for collaborative engagement across the visual and literary arts and explore the interface between medicine, health, the arts and humanities through the exchange of experiences as artist and writer, whilst also developing a strong dialogue addressing anatomy and medical education, clinical practice and human health.

The bursary will subsidise valuable time spent exploring each other’s creative disciplines and methodologies – drawing, sculpture, performance, creative writing and teaching – and our specific interests driving our research – anatomy, pathophysiology, medical education, clinical practice and bioethics – to inspire new ideas for joint visual and literary outcomes. It will afford collaborative study in anatomy, medicine, medical art, history of medicine and related contemporary art and literature, visiting University medical schools, medical museums, libraries, art galleries and exhibitions nationwide with the aim of compiling a comprehensive record of research resources for continued study.

Together, they will achieve a rich collection of ideas to progress towards collaborative and independent artworks and literature for wider engagement through arts and medical science forums including exhibitions, publications, conferences/seminars and workshops; cultivating audience engagement with issues intrinsic to the practice of medicine – what it is like to study medicine, to be a doctor, be a patient and be human – but most importantly, what happens when the creative mind of the artist meets the literary mind of the writer meets the experience of a doctor. Ultimately, they aim to achieve a joint article or essay about the experience of the collaboration for publication in related arts and literature journals.

Rachael strongly believes this opportunity is crucial to her artistic and professional development at this point in her career: “Since 2011, I have been practicing purely on an independent level as a visual artist, conducting research and devising projects with affiliates from medical education and medical humanities, which has involved the development and application of various arts methodologies into anatomy teaching and learning. I feel it’s important to further interrogate this conversation between academic and non-academic disciplines by continuing dialogue with medical institutions, but also reach further out to the professional field of medicine by collaborating with a practicing GP. This aspect of research is absolutely crucial to my interdisciplinary practice if I am to continue to produce high quality (and challenging) artwork that communicates the affairs of medicine, health and what it is to be human to broad audiences. Likewise, I recognise that the literary arts as a humanities subject that study’s human culture, is equally applicable to my artistic investigations; literature has the potential to broaden and enrich my visual ideas. Considering this, I foresee the benefits of collaborating with Eliot North whose methodologies differ from that of me as visual artist, providing a context to shadow, mirror and exchange experiences of working.”

Knowledge Boundaries © Rachael Allen

Knowledge Boundaries © Rachael Allen

Eliot North feels passionately that collaboration with the arts and humanities is essential to public engagement with medicine and health and that a more open dialogue with the creative disciplines is the future of medical education:  “I have always considered the practice of medicine to be an art underpinned by science, and that creativity is integral to the teaching of medicine and clinical practice. I hope both concepts will be communicated to a wider audience through the dissemination of our collaborative work to our artist and writer networks and to the wider public. The unique aim of this project will be to communicate an understanding of medicine, clinical practice and medical education from a doctor (and writer’s)  perspective and  that of an experienced art and medical humanities researcher and practicing fine artist (and current artist in residence in the medical school anatomy labs.)”

Brain Teaser © Eliot North

Brain Teaser © Eliot North

A visual artist collaborating with a writer to explore human health and medicine is strategic and significant; the convergence of visual and literary practices will serve as investigative grounds where two different methods of representation and communication meet, which both artist and writer have not previously experienced. The interdisciplinary nature of this artist-writer/GP collaboration affords the prospect of engaging not only with the network of peers within the arts, but also the literary and medical humanities communities. Ultimately, peers from these networks will learn how visual arts and creative writing practices can complement, enhance and challenge each other in communicating the principles of medical humanities, sci-art  and public engagement in health and medicine; with the latter also benefitting the wider community in general. In turn, this bridging of disciplines could encourage further collaborations in my network of peers through the sharing of contacts, research, funding, education and methods of interdisciplinary practices, as well as inspiring other artists to look further than their immediate artistic community in terms of collaborators.

First stop for Rachael and Eliot North will be a three day trip in London, visiting the Wellcome collection and library, Hunterian Museum at Royal College of Surgeons, Royal College of Physicians, The Gordon Museum of Pathology and Barts Pathology Museum. They plan to visit the medical schools, museums and libraries in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Durham and Leeds, with regular observational research in Newcastle and Northumbria anatomy and clinical skills labs. They’ve certainly got their work cut out for the coming nine months!

If you are interested in their collaborative project and wish to offer guidance to resources, express ideas, opinions or inspirations, they would love to hear from you.

Email artist Rachael Allen or Eliot North

View Rachael’s artwork and practice on her website and MEDinART, and the words of Eliot North on her blog and twitter account (@eliot_north)

About Centre for Medical Humanities

Centre for Medical Humanities
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