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Art class gives students of medicine, anatomy another resource to draw upon

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2004 - Spring


On occasional Thursday afternoons throughout the academic year’s first semester, students returned after hours to the gross anatomy lab armed not with scalpels, but with brushes, paints, sketch pads and cameras. There, Mark R. Depman, M.D., a clinical instructor in medicine who works part time in the emergency room at Lawrence & Memorial Hospital in New London and spends part of each week in his Fair Haven art studio, encouraged the students to examine the human body with an artist’s eye. This was not a drawing class—he offered no instruction on the fine points of charcoal or watercolors. Students could, he said, “use drawing and photography as a tool to stop and look again” at the human body.

Erin Kiehna, a second-year student, said the art class gave her a renewed appreciation for not only the body but the spirit that once occupied it. “It’s nice to sit in silence with a sketch pad in hand and really appreciate the donor,” she said. In anatomy class, she added, “You feel like you’re ransacking it, as you try to find everything.”

Depman, a member of the arts subcommittee of the Program for Humanities in Medicine, proposed the elective course last year and opened it to students at all levels of study. “I am hoping that over the coming year,” Depman said, “students will use this as an opportunity to look at the history of how we examine the body and how technology has changed the learning process.”

Although he started painting with oils and watercolors in his youth, Depman now creates images on film. (Depman’s latest work, two series of Cibachrome photographs and one of digital photographs, opened at the Nancy Hoffman Gallery in Manhattan’s Soho district in December.)

In the Thursday afternoon art class, students cluster around a cadaver or skeleton and draw with charcoals, paint with watercolors or set up cameras as they pursue an image. They come to the class with a mix of goals.

“After you’ve gone through the wards and spent time with patients you’re able to look at anatomy in a different way,” said Vernee Belcher, a fourth-year student who found the course an artistic way to become reacquainted with the human body two years after taking the gross anatomy class. Said Tina Dasgupta, in her third year of the M.D./Ph.D. program, “Every patient has a story. There is something more to a patient than a chief complaint and history of present illness.” She also found the course a way to take a fresh look at the human body. “Form meets function in a fantastic way.”

Depman, a Cornell medical graduate who studied drawing at Oxford, is fine-tuning the course and, sometime in the future, may also teach technical skills. For now, though, he’s satisfied to let students pursue their own ideas.

“It is a very important message for the medical school to put out there—that this is available and it can help you mature as a health care professional and a human being who practices medicine,” he said. “There is such a danger of losing the human impetus and human contact in practicing medicine.”

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