Diagnose this Artwork

Diagnose this Artwork

Posted 16 July 2015 by Anna Paluch
Richard Hines, Sliced Apple, 2005. Collection of the Canada Council Art Bank. Richard Hines, Sliced Apple, 2005. Collection of the Canada Council Art Bank.

Can learning to look at artwork help a doctor to better diagnose a patient? The University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Medicine thinks so. This spring it organized a workshop, in collaboration with the Canada Council Art Bank, to learn how to better communicate with patients by first, learning how to communicate with artworks.

The speakers heading the workshop were Lynn Bloom, clinical social worker, and Adjunct Professor at the University of Ottawa's Faculty of Medicine; Alan Ng, physician at the Bruyère Continuing Care facility; and Bridget Thompson, community palliative physician and co-owner of Central Art Garage.

The workshop is based on the idea that when we interact with art, we improve our communication skills and enhance our professional practice. The doctors who attended worked on expanding their emotional understanding and their visual-spatial skills so that they can observe their patients with greater attention.

Visual Thinking Strategy workshop organized by the Canada Council Art Bank and the University of Ottawa's Department of Medicine. 
Workshop participants "diagnose" Juhee Oh's Paper Route (2009).
Collection of the Canada Council Art Bank.

Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS)

The workshop drew on a teaching technique called Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), a teaching method co-founded by Philip Yenawine and Abigail Housen. VTS, which places scientific observation within a creative environment, originated at the MOMA in New York City and is used widely to teach art appreciation to children. The process is simple - participants take a minute to observe the artwork and then attempt to answer the following questions: 

  • What is going on in this painting?
  • What do you see that makes you say that?
  • What more can we find?


Diagnosing artwork

The first artwork the attendees analyzed was Richard Hines’ Sliced Apple (2005). The body language of the subjects became the focus of our discussion. Why is the boy on the counter? What is the relationship between the boy and the woman? What are their emotions? Many attendees used both situational analysis and their own personal situations (such as a child who is a picky eater) to come to various conclusions. Someone questioned why the woman is wearing black while another attendee pointed out she has a wedding ring. I started wondering: where is the spouse? Why are both subjects sad? Is the woman attempting to feed the child as they mourn the loss of someone, perhaps the spouse? In a short period of time, we were able to go from simple questions about why the apple was sliced a certain way, to questioning themes of innocence, parenthood and loss.

Neil Dalrymple, Eelmen II, 1978

Neil Dalrymple, Eelmen II (1978). Collection of the Canada Council Art Bank.

We also assessed sculptures using the same process. Neil Dalrymple’s Eelmen II (1978) is a cornucopia of emotion; some men look uneasy and cautious, while others seem determined and alert. The situation and body language was analyzed, leading us to wonder – are they real fishermen or thieves?

Some attendees even attempted to interpret an abstract artwork. Even though many had little-to-no background in art interpretation, they began to feel comfortable enough around the artwork, to try interpreting these abstractions.

Participating in the VTS workshop can help professors and doctors interpret issues in patients with more sensitivity, but it also works as a team building ice breaker. You share perspectives with your peers and take on new ideas. This workshop was not only about looking at artworks, but about building inter-personal dialogue – or in other words, as we often say at the Art Bank, “Art Starts a Conversation!”

Anna Pauch

About the Author: Anna Paluch

Anna Paluch was a summer student at the Canada Council Art Bank. She is currently working on her Masters in Art History at Carleton University, and is a frequent contributor to the Art & Science Journal.  @annapaluch

Shown here with Rita Letendre's Blues II (1971), from the collection of the Art Bank.  


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