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City-Wide Open Studios Explores Wellbeing at Yale West Campus

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2018 - Autumn


For the past 21 years, New Haven artists have opened their homes and studios to the public for three weekends in October. Under the auspices of Artspace, City-Wide Open Studios has offered New Haven’s creative community a chance not only to show their artwork but to explain the artistic process and mindset. The annual event has also featured a final weekend at an alternative space that provides a venue for artists who lack access to full-time studio space or come from outside Greater New Haven.

In years past, those alternative spaces have included the Pirelli Building on Long Wharf and the Goffe Street Armory. This year, acting on a suggestion from Yale-affiliated Artspace board members, Executive Director Helen Kauder considered Yale West Campus. Building 410, near the western entrance, was the last vacant space there.

Apart from its emptiness, among the building’s virtues was its resonance with the theme of this year’s event: wellbeing. The building itself is connected by an enclosed second-floor walkway to the School of Nursing, and West Campus is home to several biomedical research institutes and laboratories, as well as many art collections.

“The location clinched the deal,” Kauder said. “We thought that this incredible synchronicity and happy coincidence would be the right kind of arena. People are feeling anxiety about their own health care and their own wellbeing for reasons of politics and economics. With affordable care at risk, this is a time of great anxiety around that.”

In its invitation for proposals for commissioned work, Artspace asked artists to address “the need to bolster our community’s capacity for resiliency in the face of acute and long-term struggle, violence and trauma, and dedicate this year’s festival to recognizing the creative ways we work to provide care for one another.”

A panel that included people in health care, public health, and nursing, among others, selected a dozen proposals from 50 submissions. The commissioned pieces shared space with other artists’ works in the three-floor building. With its long main hallway running the length of the structure, plus side corridors, offices, and conference rooms, Building 410 could accommodate a wide variety of projects from almost 300 artists.

Joseph Fekieta, a housepainter from New Haven, memorialized the 26 lives lost in the 2012 Sandy Hook school massacre with an installation that included bicycles painted white, school desks, and children’s backpacks hung from the walls of a room on the first floor. He was inspired by an early 20th-century photo he saw in a thrift store; it depicted a group of 19 children and an adult playing on a stagecoach without wheels.

“The stagecoach was a metaphor for their lives not going any place,” he said. “Nothing was going to move forward for them. That got me thinking about the Sandy Hook massacre.”

Down the hall, a team of health care providers and artists invited passersby to be swaddled in cloths of various colors. “Babies and adults share numerous characteristics,” said Adam Berkwitt, MD, HS ’10, assistant professor of pediatrics and medical director of the Pediatric Short Stay Unit, who developed the concept. “It’s about creating a safe space where people could feel cared for.”

Berkwitt took his idea from a project at Yale New Haven Hospital that weans infants born to addicted mothers from their opiate dependence. More cuddling by mothers, the doctors found, reduces the need for medication and accelerates the weaning process.

Berkwitt collaborated with a team that included Aude Jomini, a friend who is an architectural designer and artist.

“It is about working together across disciplines in medicine and art,” Jomini said. “We have people with MFAs and MDs and architects who have these different strengths and speak to each other and learn from each other.”

The team invited people to lie on mats and curl into a fetal position as they were covered in layers of cloth in different colors. Soothing music played in the background.

“I felt very safe,” said Hartford resident Nemulen Bayarsaihan, of the seven or eight minutes she spent wrapped in the cloth. “I felt serene and calm. When they added the colored fabric, it was interesting experiencing different emotions. The blue was calming. It made you feel a little bit lighter. The red made me feel more enclosed, more introspective.”

On the walkway connecting Building 410 to the School of Nursing, the Elm City Dance Collective began a performance that, as it moved from the walkway to the courtyard below, captured a sense of wellness and community. Dancers engaged audience members, walking arm in arm with them across the courtyard. “Walking with someone in silence,” said dancer Erika Martin, “you really have to care for that person. A lot of it had to do with practices of kindness and caring for each other.”

Another of the commissioned works was BOOBS, in a room and hallway on the building’s second floor. The installation by 16 artists was originally created a year ago to raise breast cancer awareness. Its depictions of breasts included intricately adorned bras designed by caregivers and patients.

“The breast is an iconic symbol, but it’s also a life-saving organ,” said Suzanne Kachmar, an organizer of the display and Executive Director of City Lights, a Bridgeport gallery. “Primarily it is for people to demystify the idea of a boob or a breast. That’s why we used the word boob, which is a little more playful.”

One of the participating artists was Marjorie Rosenthal, MD ’95, MPH, associate professor of pediatrics. Because Rosenthal carries the BRCA1 gene variant that is linked to breast cancer, she had for years made a point of getting regular mammograms and breast MRIs. Five years ago, she was diagnosed with metastatic colon cancer as a result of her breast MRI. On a wall in the hallway she displayed a series of five drawings with text that described her treatment, including chemotherapy sessions “every other Tuesday” and a 14-hour surgery to remove parts of her liver, pancreas, and colon.

“Drawing and writing about my illness helps me make sense of it,” she said.

I Know You So Well: A Sound and Movement Choir led by choreographer Rachel Bernsen and writer Rachel Kauder Nalebuff brought together 11 health care professionals who might not otherwise have connected in a performance that explored the nature of healing. Among the 11 performers were a therapeutic dance instructor, an end-of-life doctor, a midwife, birth and death doulas, a cancer buddy, and a nurse. At one point in the performance, one by one, they described things they do every day.

“To care for you, I sometimes wear blue.”

“To care for you, I leave my own story at home.”

“To care for you, I take off my watch, so I don’t scratch you.”

“To care for you, I don’t wear my French perfume.”

Commissioned pieces also explored individual acceptance and self-celebration among members of the LGBTQ community; an open mic to provide a safe space for recovering addicts; “An Urban Perspective: Black Minds Rewired,” a collection of monologues and skits that explored race, mental health, and the stigma surrounding mental illness in poor black communities; and a mixed-media installation by David and Debbie Hesse inspired by their daughter’s mitochondrial disease.

The weekend, said Kauder, was a resounding success. Attendance reached about 5,000, and the building offered a variety of alternatives for artists. “There were rooms where artists could create intimate experiences. There were hallways that allowed throngs of people to see work on the walls. There were open areas that I think had been for cubicles that became performance spaces. As a space for generating creative output, it was phenomenal,” she said. “It was kind of overwhelming, but in a wonderful way.”

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