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Art & observation

Article-Art & observation

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  • Poet Ted Koser and painter Mark Gilbert to teach students about seeing beyond the obvious

When poet Ted Kooser and painter Mark Gilbert taught sessions earlier this year to medical school students and physician residents at the University of Nebraska, the artists' goals were not to turn the students into painters and poets, but rather into keen observers.

Dr. Lydiatt
Bill Lydiatt, M.D., professor of head and neck surgical oncology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, Omaha, tells Cosmetic Surgery Times that the idea to have artists teach young physicians and medical students came to him and colleague Virginia Aita, a bioethicist at the university, when they saw painter Mark Gilbert's work. A maxillofacial and plastic surgeon in London had commissioned the Scottish artist to paint portraits of patients, including head and neck cancer, trauma and congenital patients.

The idea behind the portraits, which Mr. Gilbert painted before, during or after patients' surgeries, was to help patients come to terms with their illnesses and surgeries. And Mr. Gilbert's ability to capture these subjects took great insight and acute observation, according to Dr. Lydiatt.

"Dr. Aita and I talked about how it would be helpful if medical students and physicians could have the same ability to observe as this artist," he says. Drs. Aita and Lydiatt invited Mr. Gilbert to do a portraiture project at University of Nebraska — much like he had done in London, but including caregivers — as well as teach students in the medical school about seeing beyond the obvious. The surgeon and professor also asked Ted Kooser, the U.S. Poet Laureate (Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress) from 2004 to 2006 and professor at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, to teach a session.

Roland S. with Radiotherapy Mask. Oil on Canvas; 1999.
Mr. Kooser, whose poetry has been recognized for its descriptive vividness, taught a session about observation through poetry. "The idea is that in order to be a first-rate artist, both of which Ted and Mark are, you need to be able to be an excellent observer. You have to understand and remember fine detail," Dr. Lydiatt says. "The students came to realize that they were not as good observers as they thought they were."

A PAINTER'S SENSE Students would draw patient actors, who pretended to have diseases, and many students found that they could not adequately depict the actors after their brief observation periods. It quickly became clear how little they use their capacity to observe, Mr. Gilbert says. Mr. Gilbert, a visiting professor and artist in residence at University of Nebraska, says that, for him, capturing people in portraits means being able to observe not just the way someone looks, but the way he acts — all the subtle, subliminal things. Painting the patients in London taught Mr. Gilbert that, while they might have had cosmetically horrendous disfigurements, their disfiguring qualities quickly become irrelevant to the image on paper or canvas.

REFLECTION THROUGH WORDS Mr. Kooser brought a large bag of green peppers and plastic knives to his session with the medical students; he then had them write descriptions of the vegetable for an audience which had never seen a green pepper.

"Some of the students used the knives to open them and look inside...I was also hoping that they would employ senses other than the visual and some of them, in fact, did describe its odor and taste," Mr. Kooser says.

While physicians might ordinarily rely on what they see and hear, acute observation requires being sensitive to all sensory impressions, the poet notes.

A BETTER SURGEON? Capturing the essence of a patient (much like a painter or poet would), including subtle details of an individual, could improve a physician's ability to diagnose and ultimately treat patients, according to Dr. Lydiatt.

In the case of cosmetic surgeons, keen observation skills might make the surgeon better able to see and understand how skin texture and underlying bone structure influence a patient's look, as well as how the patient's true native state might be affected by cosmetic surgery, Dr. Lydiatt says.

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