June 04, 2015
Students in Drawn to Care course met the people within the patients.
By Alyssa Brown
Six Cleveland Institute of Art students stepped foot into the world of a dialysis center to create portraits of patients in the 2014-15 school year. In the process, they set aside their own lives to build meaningful relationships with people they otherwise likely may have never met.
Drawn to Care, another one of CIA’s Cores + Connections initiatives highlighting engaged practices and learning, was the final product of two years worth of planning and the artistic dream of instructor Barbara Chira.
Chira, academic director of Cores + Connections and adjunct professor of art, was inspired by Mark Gilbert, an artist who was “in residence” at a London hospital and painted portraits of people going through facial reconstruction surgery.
“As an artist, it was always something that I wanted to do,” Chira said. She never had the chance to pursue this dream of acting as an artist-in-residence in a hospital setting – that is, until two years ago when Reinberger Galleries Director Bruce Checefsky asked her, along with three other faculty, to develop her dream project for the 2014-15 year-long series of special programming at CIA, titled "Community Works: Artist as Social Agent."
Chira decided that instead of pursuing this project on her own, she would develop a project with the Cleveland Clinic and place students in residence at the hospital.
She connected with the Clinic’s Arts & Medicine Institute and Dr. Robert Heyka, department chair of nephrology and hypertension, who embraced the idea and invited the students to Clinic-affiliated dialysis centers. He said that his interest was sparked by the project because he “wanted some way to help [patients] remember their humanity and feel alive.”
“I believe that young people are more separated from the elderly and sick than in the past and wondered if this coming together would affect the perspective, growth and humanity of the artist,” Heyka said.
For the duration of the school year, the students visited FMC Cleveland Clinic Eastside and FMC North Randall dialysis centers. Altogether, 27 patients chose to participated in the program this pilot year, from over 50 who signed up. Every week, students would visit the dialysis center for a few hours and work one-on-one with their patient – a process that lasted several weeks for each patient.
CIA is now the first art school to form a partnership with the world-renowned Cleveland Clinic.
Chira was impressed by the students’ maturity when working at the centers. “Nurses observed great, really professional interactions from students towards the patients,” she said.
Over the course of the year, students built relationships with patients across, as Chira put it, “significant age, cultural and socio-economical differences on both sides.”
Judging by their joyful reactions to an exhibition of final portraits, the patients appreciated seeing themselves in an artistic new light. Several patients also expressed gratitude for the distraction from the tedium of dialysis; the relationships they built with students; and the portraits, which the students gifted at the end of the school year.
Meghan Sweeney, a first year student with a prior bachelor’s degree in liberal arts, said she took note of the setting in which the students worked. Dialysis, she said, “is really taxing. The patients get really tired.”
Senior Zach Smolko, a Painting major, talked about his initial fear of taking the class because of the nature of the centers. “I was concerned that the atmosphere would be psychologically difficult to be immersed in,” he said.
But, after a time with their patients, students grew to appreciate that time spent drawing in the dialysis centers. As Chira explained, the class was meant for students to form relationships that were “human to human, just across really wild differences.”
“The experience allowed me to connect with the patients and after a few visits, the atmosphere was not as heavy as I had feared,” Smolko said.
Sweeney found the process of forming relationships with the patients rewarding. “It’s different, because I’ve done portraits either of people that I knew or from copying images from online, so going in and meeting a stranger was really different. But you connect right away.”
One of the not-so-obvious goals of the project was to improve the patients’ perceptions of themselves.
In the beginning, this was something some students had to grapple with. “Some students worked with patients who had difficulties around some facial feature, or what they looked like,” Chira said. “If they changed the portrait to something that wasn’t really what they saw to accommodate self consciousness… they were reinforcing that poor self image.”
Instead, Chira taught the students how to work with the patients to help them understand the way others see them. She wanted the students to be able to tell the patients, “All I see in your face is the strength of character, and courage, and optimism that’s been required for you to go through this life experience.”
She hopes that rather than “buying into these airbrushed ideas of beauty and pop culture” her students instead see beauty in what’s right in front of them.
The class will be offered again in the 2015-16 school year.
There is no doubting the effect Drawn to Care had on these students. As Smolko put it, “It’s hard to say this soon, but I feel it has been my most significant and rewarding experience in my artistic life.”
CIA student Meghan Sweeney welcomed her portrait subject, Ronald Kisner, to the year-end exhibition of work created by students in Drawn to Care.
Alyssa Brown is a marketing intern at CIA.
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