Mural Painting Class Brings Together Art, Medicine, and the Humanities at WSU

In 2019, Painting and Drawing Professor Margi Weir had a vision for a mural painting course. She shared that vision with Department Chair Sheryl Oring and students have been making – and capturing – history since then. “It is important for the Art and Art History Department to have a mural painting class in the curriculum, because a mural is a bridge from our department to other parts of the university, and to the greater Detroit community beyond our campus,” Weir says, “reminding the university and community of the creative work done in the Art and Art History Department and helping students to look beyond the studio for inspiration and connection.”

Students at work on Students a mural called Interactive Hands, planned for the outside of Old Main
Students detail a mural called Interactive Hands, planned for the outside of Old Main

 

Before a mural painting class was formally offered, a group of seven students used a directed study course in Fall 2019 to partner with Lyft in creating a mural entitled A City Celebration. In December 2019, the inaugural group of students in the directed study course unveiled a mural for the west side of the WSU Press building between Cass and Woodward on Hancock in December 2019. Weir says that “reaching consensus about a design and doing it all before the snow fell was a challenge, and the students were great. They were up on scaffolding around November 1st and were out there on Thanksgiving weekend in order to have the mural done in time. It was completed by force of will.” 

 

Students at work on A City Celebration, outsde of the WSU Press building
View of A City Celebration, outsde of the WSU Press building

 

Building a Foundation of Collaboration

The course has since evolved in exciting directions to bring about greater interdisciplinarity and community impact. There is now a collaborative working group called the Arts Integration in Medical Education, spearheaded by Sheryl Oring, Chair of the James Pearson Duffy Department of Art and Art History, Dr. Beena G. Sood, M.D., Associate Dean for Professional Development in the Wayne State School of Medicine, and Grace Serra, WSU Art Collection Curator. “We have gathered an incredible group of active collaborators on this project, which demonstrates just how integral it is to addressing some of the most important issues of the day,” says Oring. “Art can play a critical role in helping us see things in new ways, hone observation skills and provide a means of healing.”

Cara Young and Ephemera Fae, MFA students in the Art and Art History Department and Ashley Kramer, an MD, PhD student in the School of Medicine. are involved in the creative process of planning and executing the mural, and also running workshops with a cohort of medical students on visual thinking strategies, gesture drawing, and gross anatomy drawing. “In the gesture drawing workshops, gross anatomy students are sketching the human figure as they learn human anatomy,” Young says. “This is just a means of them learning their textbook in a different way. It’s a creative outlet that reinforces what they are learning scientifically.” 

In addition to these efforts, Jennifer Mendez, PhD, Associate Professor Emeritus, Internal Medicine and Director of Community Engagement Programs, spearheaded a multidisciplinary research study that was funded by the Association of American Medical College. The study includes Fae and Young who, utilizing art from the WSU University Art Collection, have facilitated visual thinking strategy sessions to train medical students to develop more acute visual literacy. This visual literacy training will help medical students in a range of areas, including better interpretation of ultrasound images and developing implicit bias awareness when assessing patients. 

The collaboration goes much deeper than the mural, according to Fae. “We are trying to build an internal infrastructure that will benefit both colleges in the future so that this becomes an ongoing working relationship that lives past this one mural project,” they say. “The mural project and the gross anatomy workshops are the first things we're doing, but these are just parts of creating this bigger picture.” Young adds, “There are so many multifaceted parts to this. We are building a bridge with the School of Medical but also with the Community of Detroit.”

 

Exploring Diversity in Medicine

While she was Chair of the Women in Medicine and Science (WIMS) group, Sood also facilitated a journal club at the School of Medicine organized by the American Medical Women’s Association. The journal club discussed an article in JAMA called “Deck the Halls with Diverse Portraits,” which analyzed how murals found in different Schools of Medicine tended to promote racial stereotypes and implicit bias. It argued for the need to display diverse teams in schools of medicine and academic health centers. “That article left a deep impact on me,” she says. “Those of us in the journal club thought that it would be great to have a mural in our school that displayed the true diversity of our profession.”

Sood has been able to bring these ideas forward with the collaboration with Oring, Serra, and the Art and Art History Department. “A little bit of serendipity was involved. I had recently read about an initiative launched by the American Association for Medical Schools (AMC) called FRAHME that is a toolkit for incorporating arts and humanities into medical education (https://www.aamc.org/what-we-do/mission-areas/medical-education/frahme). From there, I surveyed the faculty in the medical school about Arts in Medicine and the response has been astounding – there is tremendous interest!” Soon after, Sood learned that CFPCA and the Art and Art History Department were looking to collaborate with the School of Medicine. “From there I connected with Sheryl Oring, and we were able to lay the foundation for a great collaboration. I also learned about the Arts and Medicine student organization and immediately started connecting with students.”

 

Bringing the Medical Mural to Life

The mural is being supported by a grant from Michigan Humanities Council. It will be located on the 375-foot, public-facing wall outside of Scott Hall on Canfield Street, honoring the history of diversity in medicine and the impact of African-American healthcare leaders throughout the history of city of Detroit and today. The mural also celebrates the role of Wayne State University School of Medicine and the Detroit Medical Center in shaping healthcare and public health locally and nationally. “When we approached the Michigan Humanities Council with our grant proposal,” says Serra, “we were thinking about the impact that the medical school has had on the community, the history of training medical students of color, and how that has impacted the health and wellbeing of the city. Given this history that WSU has played, the council found our project to be a good fit.”

The intent of the mural and the location on this wall – which divides the Medical School from the surrounding community – provides a forum for a civic dialogue to help build trust between diverse community members and create a beautiful, welcoming community space.” Serra says. “Our hopes are that this will reveal the important symbiotic relationship between the university and the broader community and use it to serve as a bridge to creating a better future. Art is the necessary tool to tell these stories.”

Community participation has been a critical part of this project, and it has been emphasized by all of the collaborators. Sood says, “We knew that we needed to have community involvement in this project, and it was essential to include their voices. We want to break down any walls between Wayne State University’s School of Medicine and the people that we serve, and this project can be a means to make that connection.” Oral history interviews were conducted by Serra, while Young and Fae held listening sessions with medical students. All of these learnings helped construct the mural concept. “As we reach out and talk to the community, they can see their stories and their concerns reflected in the product that we produce, and a way to validate how the community and the artists have come together,” says Weir.

 

Engaging and Honoring the Community

To kick off the project, Serra worked with community leaders Reverend Dr. Jimmy Womack and Reverend Dr. Nicholas Hood of Plymouth United Church of Christ on St. Antoine Street to connect with congregation members and conduct the oral history interviews. The church, situated around the corner to the medical school has strong historic ties to Dunbar Hospital, built in 1892, which was the first hospital for the black community in Detroit. At that time, “Black physicians could not practice, and Black patients would not be admitted, to white hospitals. A strong community built up connected to Black Bottom and Paradise Valley, which was right around the corner from Paradise Theater and the Gotham Hotel. These were all very important and famous sites,” Serra says.

One oral history participant is a descendent of the Dr. Daisy Hill Northcross, a key historic figure in Detroit’s history of medicine. Northcross, the second Black woman to apply for a medical license in Alabama, migrated from Montgomery to Detroit in 1916. The following year, she and her husband, David Northcross, opened the city’s first Black-owned and operated hospital, Detroit Mercy General Hospital, which paved the way for Dunbar Hospital, where many eminent African-American physicians would get their start. The Drs. Northcross also opened a nurses’ training center, a hotel, and a store. Daisy will be commemorated in the mural through a floral motif pattern.

According to Fae, the mural will celebrate both the people of Black Bottom who lived in the location of the School of Medicine as well as the ongoing impact of Detroit’s medical community. “It’s the people who are going to be highlighted in the mural,” they explain. Young adds, “We want to remember that this is a place that was connected to Black Bottom. We also want to honor and celebrate communities that have been marginalized and remember that history as well – not in a way that’s painful but in a way that celebrates Detroit and the all-encompassing parts of that history.”

Serra stresses the significance of recognizing the communicating this history through projects like the mural. “If we are talking about the history of the Medical School and how the Medical School had engaged in the community,” she says, “we have to emphasize that there were things that were there before the DMC and the WSU School of Medicine. We need to communicate to the students and to everyone the impact of this vibrant community.” She concludes, “In doing the interviews, I found that it was invaluable for the community members to tell their stories. This is a legacy. They realize that they are the ones that remember those times and that at some point there won’t be anyone alive that lived during those times. The idea that young people that weren’t even born during that time will be hearing these stories first hand is really important and valuable.”

Fae also recognizes the impact of capturing these stories for current and future generations. “We are trying to build an understanding and awareness through these images and symbols. People’s stories don't have to get left behind, we can keep their stories moving. We're trying to show that the history is with us and it is as important as the present.”

 

Impact on Art Students

The partners all agree that the process of creating a mural has many benefits to our students, especially when it comes to working in teams. “The entire mural design process allowed the students to flourish as a result of their commitment to teamwork and their desire to bring their vision to life,” says Oring. Working as a team has also been a tremendous growth experience for many art students who may be more used to working alone. “Collaborative art making is new to many of the students in the class” Weir says. “It can be intimidating at first but, by the end, they are always very engaged.”

Helping students understand the complexities of the public art process is fundamental, Young says. “It is not just one drawing and we're done,” she says. “It is a whole process that starts with a proposal, a committee, securing the rights to work on a property, creating a budget, constructing the artwork, and effectively communicating the message. This is about showing students that public art making not as simple as picking up the paintbrush and making contact with the surface. There are legalities and social implications for making art in a city like Detroit which can be very complex.”

Fae and Young have taken special care to ensure that the art students involved all have a voice and a role in the creative process. “As a team, we influence each other and we share the work,” Fae says. “One person might come up with the design, and then another person might be translating it to a digital drawing. Color choices may be made by others. Some people’s ideas may win out, but those decisions are made together through discussion.” Young adds that, “Working with the students, there is a lot of encouragement that needs to come in — reminding the students that this is all of our project. It takes all of our minds working together. It’s really quite incredible.”

 

Beyond the Mural: Arts and Medicine for Humanity

In addition to recognizing the legacy and history that the mural will showcase, Sood feels strongly about the positive effects that the arts can have for the medical community today. “As a physician, the most important aspect of this collaboration for me is to cultivate that creative aspect of our beings that is often neglected in medicine. We are so focused on memorizing so many diseases and so many facts, we forget the humanitarian aspect and we forget the wellness aspect.” The stress of the pandemic has had a deleterious effect on those working on the frontlines of the healthcare system during times of scarcity and increasing burden of disease. “Physician mental health has been especially impacted because they have had to make decisions about who to provide support to and who to deny ventilators, and also having to isolate at work and at home,” she says. “We saw a marked increase in physician suicide because of the hard decisions that they had to make. Patients, their families, and physicians have suffered with so much pain. How do we use arts as a means of healing and a path to wellness for both the caregiver and for the patient? There are a lot of dimensions to this.”

As artists and educators, a driving motivation for both Fae and Young is the positive impact of art for healing individuals and communities. Fae says, “This work is for the people of Detroit and also for the people in the medical community, which is especially important right now. This is something we as artists can do to honor the medical community that has literally impacted the life of every single person in a very direct way.” Young adds, “Though art making we are documenting social conditions but also impacting them. We are reminding Detroiters that they are loved and that we haven’t forgotten about historic places like Black Bottom and that we are still keeping the spirit of Detroit alive.”

In commemorating these dimensions of Detroit’s history through the mural, history is also being made for our department and for WSU. “I think that people will really pay attention to this project,” says Serra. “This process has been a celebration of how students from different disciplines are working together on campus and getting real life experience.” Young adds, “Projects like the mural show that voices can be heard and communities can be uplifted through art making. People will see this, and it is more than just painting. It’s history.”

Expect to see the medical mural installed on the outside of Scott Hall on Canfield Street and a mini documentary released in Summer 2022.

 

References:

Wellbery C, Mishori R. Deck the Halls With Diverse Portraits. JAMA. 2018;320(6):528–530. doi:10.1001/jama.2018.11013

Boyd, Herb. The medical Northcross family of Detroit. New York Amsterdam News. June 22, 2017. Online. https://amsterdamnews.com/news/2017/06/22/medical-northcross-family-detroit/