Art Reducing Stigma

The Gift of Art: Explaining Illness Through Images

View the original article from Democrat & Chronicle
Published on December 23, 2016

In many traditions, the holiday season is a time of celebration, of giving, and of community.  With that in mind, I’m thrilled that an internationally known artist-in-residence will be joining the UR Medical Center in January.  It feels like we are getting a really fabulous present – and I keep having to pinch myself to make sure that I’m not dreaming.

The artist in question is Charmaine Wheatley – a delightful Canadian whose portrait work is presently on exhibit at the Isabella and Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, and who has previously had a couple of extended residencies at that same museum (among other places).  Here at URMC, she’ll be creating two community-oriented art projects intended to raise awareness of – and reduce stigma towards – (1) people living with HIV/AIDS and (2) people living with mental illness.

As the Director of the UR’s Center for AIDS Research, and someone who also cares deeply about the issue of mental illness, this is a unique opportunity not only to connect with these communities (and the larger Rochester community as a whole), but also to explore how patients, researchers and health care providers see themselves.

Charmaine has a unique personal warmth that makes her unusually gifted at connecting with others, and at hearing details in their life experiences that bring her art (and their portraits) fully to life.  In her work, you not only see the image of the person represented, but you also hear their words and understand a little of their personal journey – and in that way, come to see something of the whole person.  As a result, her work has a way of communicating complex human experiences in a highly relatable way.

The art that Charmaine plans to create at URMC will take the form of individual portraits, generated after one-on-one interviews in which she will listen to the life experiences and personal stories of the members of the communities she’ll be working with.  She also plans to speak with family members, health care providers, and researchers (including graduate students) – as a way of rounding out the project, and providing a more complete view of the communities in which she will be immersing herself.  As a scientist, I’m particularly excited at the idea of connecting researchers more fully with those who their work is intended to serve.

The plan is to share Charmaine’s work with the community, through the media, community lectures, exhibits, installations and other approaches.  As she has said:  “I’ll set out to use my creative powers, experience and sensibility to reduce stigma around mental illness and HIV/AIDS.”   I can’t think of anything better that I’d like for the holidays.