Aesthetics of Health: Art Pedagogy Meets Community Engagement

Anmol joins the Zoom with large, searching eyes that seem to scan the other faces that have joined. She settles into a seat in her home, framed by a bookcase to her left as Studio Art Professor Megan Hildebrandt orients everyone to the task at hand during class: a patient portrait. 

Anmol waits for a cue from Professor Hildebrandt who says, “Go ahead and start wherever you want to.” Anmol’s eyes, sensing a spotlight, flicker back and forth as she begins, “Okay, so I guess, usually, I mean, I've only really told my story probably once or twice and, so, those times I usually start with the fact that I was on a trip to Peru climbing Machu Picchu in July of 2019…” 

Anmol was the first of seven portrait sessions of eight patients, survivors and caregivers over the Spring Semester, where those impacted by cancer—including those in active treatment, those in post-treatment survivorship, their loved ones, and members of a cancer care team—gathered in a virtual classroom for “Aesthetics of Health” a Studio Art course and unique collaboration between the Department of Art and Art History and Dell Medical School’s Livestrong Cancer Institutes (LCI). The course was conceived by Hildebrandt and organized at UT Austin in collaboration with Robin N. Richardson, who oversees care transformation and community engagement initiatives at LCI. Hildebrandt and Richardson employed a mix of art, illness narrative, clinical pedagogies and community engagement. Together with students, persons with lived experience of cancer, like Anmol, were invited to explore wide-ranging and non-linear themes over the course of a class period, including storytelling, the uniqueness of every cancer experience, the consistent need for patient self-advocacy, and the impact of space on one’s healthcare experience.

Patient Amnol playing piano during Livestrong and Department of Art and Art History patient portrait session let by Megan Hildebrandt in Aesthetics of Health course

A Whole Person, not a Disease

As students worked on their portraits, Anmol continued to talk, meandering through the story of her cancer experience until she was asked by one of the students whether she had any hobbies or activities that helped her cope during that time. “I played the piano since I was five,” she responded, lighting up at the memory. 

“And I actually found a piano in the hospital at Seton, which is where I got my chemo, and so sometimes I would try to go down there and play the piano. That was really awesome. Then, even when my transplant was done at St. David’s in South Austin, a different hospital, there they had a room with a piano. I think that’s probably like, a ‘fun’ thing I would try to do every so often.” 
“Do you have a piano in your home?” Hildebrandt asked.
“Yes,” she said, swiveling her camera around to show the Zoom class a piano on the other side of the room.
“Can you play something for us?”
“Oh man, I can try.”

In each portrait session, there were small moments like these, where the slippage between portrait sitter, cancer survivor, and whole person with a set of life experiences, hobbies, likes and dislikes entirely separate from cancer emerged. The moments are a testament to the power of artists and art to hold space, bear witness, and expand the capacity for healing.

“We wanted this project to be mutually beneficial,” said Hildebrandt. “For young artists to see their artwork as something that is meant to serve others and for patients to experience their narrative in a way where they feel more ownership, where they can honor their experience, where they can be listened to and have their experience reflected back.” 

Working with the Livestrong Cancer Institute, Richardson practices the CaLM model of whole-person cancer care, an approach to cancer care that helps to address patients’ needs beyond those of their disease. The program emphasizes psychosocial, palliative and supportive care—including nutritional support and pain and symptom management—for all patients. CaLM, also referred to as Cancer Life reiMagined, is “an interdisciplinary, team-based approach to care [that] supports patients’ goals during and after treatment, asking what is most important to them in terms of their capability, comfort, and calm.” 

Before the Aesthetics of Health students engaged in these portrait sessions, they needed grounding in this patient-centered approach. The class covered a practical survey of patient privacy and extensive discussions on disparities in care and the privilege of care, lack of access to palliative and supportive care in traditional cancer care models, and innovations in industrial and architectural design to support patient-centered care goals. Students met with Angela Luna, a clinical social worker prior to talk about the difference between empathy, sympathy, and pity and distinguishing between how to talk to people impacted by cancer and how not to talk to them. The approach provided context to cancer care for students, and each component of the pre-portrait training contributed to a more empathetic, more reciprocal open dialogue between the student artists and the participants sitting for their portraits. 

two side by side patient portraits of Prof Chesney

Left: Madison Boothe, 2021.
Right: Jasmine Chock, 2021.

In Which Art Serves Others

In a traditional figure drawing class, a model comes into the classroom and receives instruction on where to pose in the room and for how long to hold each pose. There is minimal dialogue encouraged between the model and the students tasked with capturing a likeness of the sitter. In some ways, the exchange can parallel a traditional healthcare delivery experience for a patient undergoing any number of traumatic health events, where care is sterile and clinical, focused on medical services and disease treatment instead of the psychological, emotional, physical, social, cultural, practical, and spiritual needs and preferences of patients and their loved ones. 

Even pre-pandemic, Hildebrandt did not design her course to align with the traditional figure drawing class. Hildebrandt was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2009 during her first year of graduate school, and she went through eight months of treatment. Her own experiences informed the design of the pilot program at Interlochen Center for the Arts. From personal experience, making art in an academic setting and creating work during chemotherapy treatments at an infusion center went hand in hand, and prompted Hildebrandt to ask what other role art could play in treatment that was not tied to the specific modalities of art therapy. The course that she piloted at Interlochen—and iterated upon at UT—reorients the role of art in clinical settings and finds space for co-creation. 

“We wanted this project to be mutually beneficial. For young artists to see their artwork as something that is meant to serve others and for patients to experience their narrative in a way where they feel more ownership, where they can honor their experience, where they can be listened to and have their experience reflected back.” - Studio Art Assoc. Prof. Megan Hildebrandt

During the pandemic, students were released from having to work in any one medium. Instead, they could freely choose between digital tools, paints, pencils, charcoal, sculpture, animation or whatever they had on hand in their homes that sparked their interest. Portrait sitters were also released from the expectation to show up in a new place and sit still for a specified time. The joint release lent each session the ease of a friendly conversation, as the whole person and their cancer experience commanded equal weight. The spirit of co-creation was always at work and in practice, allowing patient participants to rethink their own story and students to invite others into their process as they shared incomplete work during class. 

The narrative process employed in the course allowed persons impacted by cancer to revisit and explore their own stories. “Many people embraced that experience, even more,” said Richardson. “It's this interesting duality of escaping the reality of cancer, but also more fully embracing it in ways that they maybe haven't done before.” The concepts of no single cancer experience and no single story emerged repeatedly throughout the course.

The class didn’t just meet with those in post-treatment survivorship. One day, longtime Print Professor Lee Chesney sat for the class. Chesney was recently diagnosed with lung cancer and showed up on Zoom with a comfy blanket around his shoulders, sitting at a checkered table with an eyepatch on and a waxy, netlike purple radiation mask that is shaped to fit each patient’s face to hold the head still during chemotherapy treatment by his side. His daughter could be seen behind him and would interject details into stories that have clearly been told and retold many times, as only a daughter could. 

As students drew, painted, and listened, they were treated to a story of a multi-generational family of printmakers. Chesney spoke about how he thinks of his own work and his father’s, and what it felt like to wear the chemotherapy mask during treatment. Students shared their work at the end of class, showing how they focused on what resonated for them—the texture of his shearling blanket, the chemo mask, or Chesney’s offhand and instantly classic context-less remark that “charcoal is a sin.” Most of all, the students held space with and for a beloved professor. 

Looking Forward 

When the spring 2021 Aesthetics of Health students were asked to describe the course, they emphasized how it has changed the way that they see the work that they do as artists. They understand the deep significance of empathy in everything they do and how turning toward a community-based approach to their practice can only expand the scope of their work. One student wrote, “Aesthetics of Health has illustrated how integral empathy is to art making. This course has emphasized how empowering it can be to become an active listener and give back to the community that inspires you. I appreciated the curiosity it sparked in interdisciplinary approaches to art making!”

Another student added, "Professor Hildebrandt uses her own story as cancer survivor to engage us, the art, and the people we work with in a very tangible way. Of all the classes I've taken, this class has most brought my art into contact with the real world by addressing real stories and encouraging deep empathy."

In the coming years, Hildebrandt imagines Aesthetics of Health operating in-person and in a more intimate setting. While continuing to partner with Livestrong and Richardson, the course hopes to invite other arts practitioners across the College of Fine Arts into the fold. This spring, the course culminated with each portrait participant receiving a final portrait of their choosing. Hildebrandt and Richardson hope to exhibit the remaining portraits from the Spring 2021 Aesthetics of Health class. 

Screen shot image of patient and son interacting in front of partial American flag as presentation of portrait drawn during an Aesthetics of Health class session with person impacted by cancer
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