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The Heritage & Legacy Project: An intersection of the arts & mental health

June 13, 2024
by Crista Marchesseault

On May 14, 2024, Yale Child Study Center (YCSC) Assistant Professor of Child Psychiatry Ayotunde Ayobello, MD delivered a special Grand Rounds lecture, part of the center’s Max Ritvo ’13 and Alan B. Slifka ’51 Program for the Medical Humanities. Following this session, in which he outlined his journey as an artist and a psychiatrist, his 6x4 foot oil painting titled “Heritage and Legacy" was officially unveiled.

The Heritage and Legacy Project was structured around the creation of the painting, depicting 15 YCSC trainees and painted between February 2020 and December 2022. Each studio sitting lasted approximately four hours and included an in-depth interview that was recorded and transcribed for qualitative analysis. The individuals included in the painting represented different professional disciplines including child psychiatry, psychology, and social work.

For the Grand Rounds session leading up to the unveiling of the painting, which now resides in the entryway of the third level of the Nelson Irving Harris Building (230 South Frontage Road in New Haven), Ayobello discussed the unique methodology of using a collective oil portrait as the basis for a qualitative study using narrative inquiry. He also addressed the impact of "before me" (Heritage) and "after me" (Legacy) on child mental health trainees, along with advancements at the intersection of visual arts and psychiatry.

Andrés Martin, MD, PhD, who serves as the Riva Ariella Ritvo Professor at the YCSC as well as a professor of psychiatry, provided opening remarks for the session, noting that “Today's is a truly special grand rounds, and I don't say that lightly.” He shared that this was the fifth lecture established in memory of Max Ritvo and Alan B. Slifka and noted that to date there had not been a focus on paint as a medium, “…but that's where we're going to go today. Today’s speaker is a gentle giant. We still fondly talk about him in the inpatient unit as a child whisperer because in his bigness he was so good with kids, so gentle and so wonderful…”

When Ayobello took the podium, he shared, “I am incredibly excited to share this journey with you,” as he did just that beginning with images of his birthplace and childhood home in Nigeria. He went on to discuss his love of reading that led to a love of learning about art. This had a huge impact on him even before he was later able to see some of the incredible paintings in person, including as he learned and explored some of the mental health challenges with which many of the artists he read about had struggled.

“I continued to explore this intersection of the visual arts and wellness,” he said, “and I realized that art doesn't cause you to have mental health issues. Art can, however, be a therapeutic solution. Art can be…a soothing pathway to dealing with mental health a means of catharsis and relieving their struggles.”

When he first began painting, Ayobello modeled his work after such famous artists as Vincent Van Gogh and Edward Munch. One such painting was completed during a particularly difficult time in Ayobello’s life, following a car accident among other struggles. He found that the arts helped him cope – and now, today, he is both a child psychiatrist and a visual artist. When asked why he chose psychiatry as a field, he says, “No: psychiatry picked me,” noting that this began during his exploration of the arts, and that connection between art and mental health.

In addition to the painting itself, a culminating paper was developed as part of the project, published as “Narratives of heritage and legacy: Child and adolescent mental health trainees portrayed” in Frontiers in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. In that work, narrative inquiry was used as an analytic approach, as a method that attends to unique stories and aims to make meaning out of individuals' life experiences.

The Max Ritvo ‘13 and Alan B. Slifka ‘51 Program for the Medical Humanities was established in memoriam to explore the interface between the arts and child/adolescent mental health, this multidisciplinary program aims to improve the clinical experience of those affected by illness and strengthen the ability of providers to deliver compassionate care. It includes guest speaker and visiting scholar components, as well as culminating special lectures each spring.

Submitted by Crista Marchesseault on June 11, 2024