Early in the spring of my first year of medical school I participated in the Medical Humanities elective, “The Practice of Making Abstract Art: Balancing Intuitive and Analytical Thought.” At the end of that year, students completed a required community service–learning project, culminating in the sharing of key experiences in small groups. Traditionally, students composed narrative responses to trigger questions about personal and professional growth. However, after exploring a rich means of self-expression in the abstract art seminar, I felt limited by the sole use of words to capture the richness and complexity of my experience.
I had volunteered at the Wendy Hilliard Foundation, an inner-city youth development organization in New York’s Harlem neighborhood. As a former rhythmic gymnast, I found it to be exceptionally rewarding and nostalgic to be able to coach young female athletes in this sport. It was an opportunity to step beyond usual health care settings to actively help instill habits of health and exercise at a young age. Working in this particular community was an opportunity to learn more about health disparities and reflect on my own feelings about these challenges.
A day at the gym is multifaceted. Each student has a story, some more complex than others. Combine this with the sport of rhythmic gymnastics, which is unbelievably elegant and deceivingly difficult, and one can imagine the sensory overload that might ensue. Because I was already familiar with this uniquely visual and aesthetic sport, I felt art would be a more translatable medium to portray the full breadth of my experience. Similar to rhythmic gymnastics, art must be observed to be fully appreciated, and interpretation may vary depending on the viewer.
What stood out most during my coaching were all the pieces that must coalesce to allow a child to become a successful rhythmic gymnast. Similarly, in medicine, training, determination, socioeconomic and cultural conditions, and medical challenges must all fit together at exactly the right angles to make the ideal image. My drawing aims to portray the assemblage of all of these aspects. The straight lines and angles are intended to represent the strict discipline instilled by the sport. Bit by bit the shapes grow, mature, and finally come together and fuse to form one gymnast shown doing a split in the air. Creating a drawing on paper reinforced my understanding of individuals in a population, specifically patients in health care. Just as a young athlete on a journey to becoming a distinguished gymnast faces hardships that may misalign to block her final goal, patients, too, meet obstacles and life factors that throw them off their ideal course. We must use both intuitive and analytical thinking not only in the creation of art but also as future doctors in the understanding of our patients’ lives.
Here, two of my instructors offer their own reflections on my work:
Steven Rosenzweig: A humanities-rich learning environment supports students to develop a more powerful language with which to describe the lived experiences of illness and doctoring. The serendipitous timing of a seminar in abstract art just prior to a community service–learning requirement offered Ms. Moskalenko a wonderful opportunity to integrate learning on all fronts. Her process and artwork enriched small-group inquiry: Peers responded eagerly to the aesthetics of the piece and had greater opportunity to explore the process and multilayered meanings of their own community experiences.
Marianne Mitchell: Making abstract art requires integrating instinctive and systematic thought to create artwork that communicates to the heart and mind. This practice fosters the ability to first employ intuition and learn how it informs analytical thought, ultimately integrating these opposing thought processes to reach a comprehensive resolution, be it an artistic creation or medical diagnosis. It is very exciting that making abstract art was an effective means for Ms. Moskalenko to broaden her reflective and communicative skills.
Marina Moskalenko, Marianne Mitchell, and Steven Rosenzweig, MD
is a fourth-year student, Drexel University College of Medicine, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; firstname.lastname@example.org.
is adjunct professor, Drexel University College of Medicine, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
is associate professor and director, Office of Community Experience, Drexel University College of Medicine, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.