The arts set the stage for careers in health and healthier careers.
| 2017 Q4 | story by Sarah Bishop, photos by Steven Hertzog
What’s the difference between a sculptor and a surgeon? Not much, it turns outs. Increasingly, we’re learning what makes for a good artist also makes for a good doctor, and the visual thinking acumen of Jackson Pollock was probably shared by Louis Pasteur. From art and music therapy, which help individuals process their feelings, to the incorporation of arts and humanities courses into medical school curricula, giving doctors and pharmacists the creative thinking, problem-solving and empathy skills they need to be excellent health-care providers, the blurring of the boundaries between arts and health is leading to healthier communities for us all.
From Artist to Art Therapist to Arts Educator: Margaret Weisbrod Morris
Margaret Weisbrod Morris, chief program officer at the Lawrence Arts Center, received her Bachelor of Fine Arts in painting and printmaking from the University of Wisconsin-Madison then turned her focus to art therapy when she entered graduate school. “I was living in New York and working in galleries, just being a young artist, and I was finding it empty—I think I was just getting a little disillusioned with the business side of art,” Morris says. “I had a friend who was a VISTA [Volunteers in Service to America] volunteer, and I thought, ‘What a great way to give back.’ ”
After getting a VISTA placement at a day treatment center for adults with mental illness and drug-addiction issues, Morris was asked to develop an art program for the clients because of her degree. It was through this experience that Morris first recognized the therapeutic power of art. “People who felt so disconnected from the world that they hadn’t spoken in weeks would become verbal and lucid while working on art projects,” Morris recalls. “Vietnam vets with PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] were able to work out their anger and talk about their experiences with each other while drawing and painting. Art helped people process their feelings and start dreaming again.”
These experiences inspired Morris to get her master’s degree in art therapy at New York University under the guidance of the founder of art therapy, Edith Kramer. After practicing art therapy for several years, Morris took on more administrative roles in the arts but never stopped doing her own artwork or thinking about the power of art to heal. “While I’m not working clinically anymore,” Morris explains, “I consider what I do at the Arts Center as carrying forward the principles of art therapy. Art impacts your brain—it actually makes your brain healthier—and the impact of that has ripple effects that spread far beyond the individual, including how a person connects with their family, interacts with their immediate community and contributes to the cities in which they live and work. My awareness of all the ways that art can create healing in this world underlies everything I do.”
From Ceramicist to Pharmacist: Melissa McCormick
Like Morris, local pharmacist Melissa McCormick started out as someone who felt a deep connection to the fine arts. Something about the experience of creating hand-built objects out of clay resonated with her in a way that nothing else ever had, so when she graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Kansas in the 1980s, she set to work on her artist’s portfolio. But, when she found herself creating work in the day and bartending at night in order to make ends meet, she realized an art career wasn’t going to provide her with the job security or the lifestyle she wanted.
So, McCormick turned to pharmacy. “I wanted to help people, and I wanted to do something that required me to make creative connections and to focus on the big picture,” she explains. “Lots of people don’t understand that the main thing a pharmacist does is to put together a complex picture of a person’s health—we consider the diagnosis, drug interactions and the individual patient. That takes a lot of creativity in a weird sort of way—there’s lots of pieces of the puzzle to think about.” And, when McCormick started taking prerequisites to get in to pharmacy school, some additional benefits of her art degree surfaced. “Taking organic chemistry, for example,” McCormick says, “I realized I was really good at drawing and memorizing the structure of three-dimensional molecules. I think this was a result of all the three-dimensional thinking I had done as a ceramicist.”
Today, McCormick is a pharmacist at the Dillon’s grocery store on Massachusetts Street, but she still finds time to practice ceramics with her ceramist-turned-firefighter husband, Ed Noonen. The couple has a home studio with a kiln, and as McCormick’s portfolio demonstrates, just because art isn’t your full-time career doesn’t mean you can’t make great work. “It’s really hard to make a living just doing art,” McCormick admits, “but you shouldn’t let that stop you from making art. Find a balance between your professional life and your creative life, and if you want to make art, keep doing it, no matter what.”
As the connections between art and health continue to emerge, therapists and doctors, painters and potters can start to be recognized not only as either medical practitioners or arts professionals, but as healing artists who use the power of creativity and imagination to actually help people feel better. Regular creative practice can begin to be seen as an essential part of a healthy lifestyle, whether it pays the bills or it doesn’t. As Morris says, when reflecting on her own practice, “For me, painting in the studio is like working out: I just feel better when I make time to go to the gym, and I feel better when I make time to focus on my art.”