I wrote this essay in 2006, and it is inteded to be part of a book describing the Healing Arts Project run at the Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield, MA. While the essay was originally indended to discuss my impression of how the arts and healing interacted, it evolved to deal more with the interplay between art and science as I had expierenced it, and really this was the first time I sat down and thought about these things myself. This work is slated to be published in the upcomming book A Place Called Franklin, and I hope that this work is not too obtuse!
I became involved in the FMC Healing Environment project largely by chance. My background is the sciences, and from 1998-2002, I was a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts in the chemistry department. On first inspection, it may seem strange to think that a scientist could also be an artist, after all the popular image of the worlds inhabited by the two are portrayed to be orthogonal to each other. On one had, you have the bespectacled and pristine white lab coat wrapped scientist toiling away at monotonous experiments and speaking in crisp, direct statements. Life for a scientist is rooted in precision and order and only by rational application of logic can scientific results be achieved. The artist, on the other hand, is dressed flamboyantly, lives and thrives in a chaotic environment of clashing sounds and images, and employs vague Zen-like phrases in attempts to communicate the inner world that pushes the creation of the exterior art. For an artist, life is dominated by emotion and experiences that provide the basic ingredients from which creativity is generated. While some of these generalizations are true, in the end they are mostly stereotypes and, in fact, the two worlds have much in common with each other. In science, while it is true that methodological tedium is required to get to the end of a scientific inquiry, creativity is absolutely needed to provide the seed of thought that leads to the inquiry. For artists, the craze of emotion is needed to provide artistic inspiration but discipline is needed to complete almost any work of art. Although I hate to get metaphysical, I believe that the duality of these worlds blend well together in some version of the Yin and Yang, a pairing of the rational and irrational to achieve a greater whole.
What is also true of this link is that my science life has often worked its way into my artistic life, inspiration tunneling between the two worlds like a quanta of creativity. Many of these connections are subtle and I donít even realize they exist until someone points them out to me while others are glaring and I still donít see them at the time! For a while at UMass, my paintings focused on abstract compositions of geometric objects- mainly spheres. While it seems obvious in retrospect, at the time I missed the connection with the research I was engaged in. At that time, I was studying the self-assembly of gold nanoparticles- tiny spheres of gold metal 50,000 times smaller than a human hair- into three-dimensional structures. I would characterize these nanoparticle assemblies using a form of microscopy that used electrons instead of light to visualize a sample and ended up spending hour after hour looking at these objects. I suppose at some point the structures leaked over in my mental processes and I began doing paintings that looked like what I was seeing under the microscope. Of course, art can also be found in the research- after a time I began to view these nanoparticle assemblies as almost a form of sculpture, albeit on an incredibly tiny scale. In fact, even the technique of electron microscopy has an artistic side to it, kind of like a really fancy and expensive form of black and white photography, and I still have a collection of electron micrographs of random things that I found while examining my samples that I intend to put together for an art show one day. Other aspects of my research world have leaked over to the art world, and from time to time I can detect the essence of something I am studying in the lab appear in a painting like some kind of phantom bridge between the two worlds.
The science life is also good for other sources of inspiration, mainly stemming from the fact that you travel a lot and have the opportunity to live and work in a variety of places and meet a large number of interesting people from around the world. Since graduating from UMass, I have had the chance to live in both New Mexico and now Hawaii, and both places have added new dimensions to my work. In New Mexico, I really began to explore the concept of open space while in Hawaii I have been working more on developing a deeper appreciation for color. My current job is as a Research Fellow at the NASA Astrobiology Institute at the University of Hawaii. I am part of a group of ten fellows whose job it is to help define the emerging field of Astrobiology- which is kind of strange since it is a science without a subject (i.e. no extraterrestrial life has been discovered yet). Rather, the point of the field is to develop the scientific basis and technological capability to pursue the search for life on other planets. Needless to say this is a really large challenge and is something I will probably not live long enough to see successfully completed, but it is a place were imagination, as well as being open to new experiences, is of paramount importance. In this job I mainly work on my computer or in a lab, but I have also had the chance to go on oceanic research cruises to study underwater volcanoes and will probably be using telescopes in the near future to look for signs of life on some of the ice covered moons of Jupiter and Saturn. While much of these experiences have yet to materialize into my painting, Iím sure they are back there somewhere waiting for the right time to come out.
Art is also an excellent, if expensive, form of mental escapism that has helped to keep me sane when the tedium of the science gets to be oppressive. After a long day in the lab, and especially on those days when nothing works out right and I feel the randomness of the universe has stacked the deck against me, I can go home and work out the frustrations by painting. Mostly, this therapy comes in the form of the almost meditative state I get in when concentrating fully on a complicated aspect of the painting: the selection of the appropriate color to use, mixing the colors on the palette, and care with the brushstrokes as the image comes out of my mind and on to the canvass. Sometimes, though, I like to a take a complicated and ordered background that I donít have a good idea of how to use and toss around paint- a lŠ Jackson Pollock- all over the place. Needless to say, there are now a string of landlords across the country who do not approve of this version of self-therapy, but such is life.
At some point in grad school, I began to take my artwork seriously. This probably happened after I completed An Artists (mis)Interpretation of the Periodic Table of Elements, a composition of 120 individual abstract paintings that is intended to be displayed to look like the periodic table. After completing several more pieces and subsequently turning my apartment in to a cross between studio, galley, and warehouse, I started to look for galleries to exhibit my art. One of the places I sent my portfolio to was the UMass Student Gallery, and I believe it is they who passed my work on to Jeanine Young-Mason which, in turn, lead to my involvement with the FMC project. When I learned that it was to be an art show in a hospital, I was not too sure what to expect.
I have been lucky and have not had to spend much time in hospitals. My brother, on the other hand, spends far more time in them than he really wants to. He is a RN and currently works as a travel nurse. Velocity is a key to his life, and the ability to work in one place for a few months, make good money, and move on to somewhere else has held an attraction to him for a while. Recently, we had the good fortune of living together in the same place, out in Honolulu, and had the opportunity to reconnect as adults. I had meant to ask his opinion on the whole art-in-the-hospital thing when he was here, but we never got the chance to discuss it past a superficial level. From that brief talk, however, I got the feeling that having colorful work displayed on the halls had a definite positive effect on the mental space inside of a hospital. From my own experience, I have mostly worked in the University environment where the walls in the hallways outside of the research labs are jumbled with bulletin boards with tacked up notices, posters of research in progress, and personal items making a hallway like a family scrap book for a research group. After grad school, I worked in the National Labs for a while, and the halls where much more barren. Individual office doors were be decorated by the occupant, and displayed everything ranging from an all-door poster showing the geological and evolutionary history of the earth to mock inspirational posters to Dilbert cartoons. The halls, however, were a barren beige color that had only the occasional poster and were scuffed from years of moving equipment around the building. Although more professional and certainly no one was offended, it made the place seem more empty and more utilitarian. Like we were all just going through the motions and working towards retirement.
So, I suppose the question really is: How does art effect the mental space inside of a place that it is hung? This, I think, is a complicated question and perhaps even more so in a place like a hospital. When my brother looses a patient during a code at the end of a twelve hour shift, will seeing an abstract in pastel outside the ICU somehow make the sadness and stress lessen? When a doctor goes to tell the family of this event, will a sunset seascape painting make their loss any easier to accept? Will a cancer patient on the way to chemo see a black and white photograph of a child playing in early winter snow and forget about the upcoming pain? I guess that these questions can be, at best, difficult to answer. Myself, if I had to be in a hospital, I would defiantly want to be in one with art. Lets face it, nobody goes to a hospital if they are OK, and I think that having art in the hallway would be able to help take people to a better mental space. You can look at a painting, perhaps get lost in the colors or perhaps it triggers a lost memory, and loose yourself from the moment. Art does something else- it transcends a place from a mere utilitarian facility to something greater. Not really a home or necessarily a place where you want to be, but someplace where you can feel humanity. A place where people may care a little more about what they do and who they are because the art may remind them that they are more than a functionary, they are human as well.
I am very proud to have had the opportunity to contribute to the FMC arts project. For me, it was my initial foray into the world of exhibiting my art, and the warm reception I received as a result of my efforts was a very encouraging event. Since then, I have had the opportunity to not only continue my painting, but also to exhibit it in galleries and art shows in New Mexico and now Hawaii. Then, as now, the positive feed back an artist receives from people who view their work is an anchor which helps hold one to the pursuit of their art. Perhaps more importantly, I was glad to have the opportunity to contribute to this project, one that I hope will continue and expand. I think that, in the end, no matter what psychological effect art may have on an environment, it will always be better to look at something on the wall than the wall itself.
This page was created on 31 July 2006 and last updated 31 July 2006