Discussing the Art of Observation – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

Discussing the Art of Observation

Director of Medical Humanities at the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) Stephanie Brown Clark recently presented a workshop, titled “Paintings and Patients: What the Visual Arts Can Teach Healthcare Professionals,” as the final installation of the “Vital Connections: Health Sciences and the Humanities” lecture series.

“I was very excited to see art and architecture, science, and pre-health students and faculty at Professor Brown Clark’s workshop,” says Visiting Assistant Professor of English Sarah Berry. “I think that people chose to attend this workshop based on their individual disciplinary interests, but when I talked to people afterward, they each came away with an enlarged perspective on the overlap between the seemingly separate fields of visual studies and health care. It was also a great opportunity for scholars of diverse disciplines to come together and work together, to produce knowledge and reflection in a collaborative way.”

The idea for Brown Clark’s talk came from URMC’s program, “Art and Observation,” which offers sessions that focus on observing art one week and observing a patient the next. Aimed at teaching students the skills of observation, the class also helps students develop descriptive skills, hone self-awareness and encourage self-disclosure. 

Providing a basic history of how the program got started and an outline of its benefits to medical students, Brown Clark noted that the curriculum was developed based on the skills necessary to perform as a doctor – namely observation without interpretation, recognizing familiarity, creating a hypothesis, challenging conclusions and confronting biases.

“We’re not trying to create better people, although the field of medicine and humanities does do that,” explains Brown Clark. “We’re trying to make better doctors.”

Showcasing the methodology behind the “Art and Observation” course, Brown Clark asked workshop participants to use the steps she had outlined to analyze George Catlin’s 1857 painting, “Shooting Flamingos.”

Not given any details about the painting, the audience pointed out different physical features of the painting, including the birds, the person in the painting and the brown mounds that littered the background.

“Exercises like these help students confront their areas of expertise and biases,” says Brown Clark. “We all see from our own position and time period, which causes us to interpret the painting in terms of issues like race and the destruction of wildlife and nature. However, at the time this piece was painted, the audience the painting was intended for would not have looked at in the same way.”

Contributing careful observations and interpretations to the group workshop, many members of the audience confronted their perspectives.

“Through Professor Brown Clark’s presentation, I learned that in taking science courses we are taught a very specific way of thinking, but this not always the most effective way of looking at things,” says Andrew Zenger ’14, a pre-med biochemistry major and health minor. “The way she presents the picture without giving you any context at all forces you to look at things from a different perspective.”

Brown Clark is the co-author of “John Romano and George Engel: Their Lives and Work” and “Body Language: Poems of the Medical Training Experience.”

With a bachelor’s and master’s in English literature from the University of Western Ontario, a higher diploma in Anglo-Irish literature from Trinity College, an M.D. from McMaster University and a Ph.D. in medical history and English literature from the University of Leiden, Netherlands, Brown Clark is well-versed in the ways in which art and medicine intersect.

The “Vital Connections: Health Sciences and the Humanities” lecture series is sponsored by a grant from the Deans and the Provost’s offices at HWS, and organized by Associate Professor of Chemistry Justin Miller and Berry.