Oh, my aching (inspirational) back: Art at UCLA Medical School

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"They told me I needed screws" by Ellen Cantor

Back pain is the unlikely inspiration for an art show—and it’s hanging in an unlikely venue: the lobby of a building at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. Photographer Ellen Cantor of Palos Verdes is featured in the show. She was inspired after being diagnosed with scoliosis. “I was going to different doctors and the doctors told me things I didn’t understand. In my mind, I created these little sculptures that said to me ‘this is what I think they’re telling me,'” she told me.

Cantor makes those sculptures out of fruits and vegetables and bolts and wires, photographs them and then enlarges the pictures to 20 by 30 inches. They look kind of like Pixar characters. Here’s how she describes a photo called They told me I needed screws: “It’s 2 stalks of celery, put together, those are supposed to be my spine, and I’ve taken screws, and screwed them in, tied them together with wires and rubber bands so they stay together that my spine doesn’t fall apart.”

The show is called “Back2Back”. Ted Meyer, the guest artist-in-residence at UCLA Medical School, conceived of and curated the exhibit. “We try to have the shows correspond with what the med students are studying that quarter,” he said. “This was ‘structural muscular quarter.’ I really wanted them to go ‘wow, look at what this person’s been through, and how does it seem.'”

Dr. Andrew Schwartz is an orthopedic surgeon who teaches at UCLA.  As he walked through the lobby gallery, he said this exhibit humanizes patients for his students. “By the second or third year they become scientists, more rote and robotic. How can we get them to communicate better with patients, to enhance the patient’s understanding? When the patient understands they do better, they heal better.”

UCLA is one of just a handful of medical schools in the country that has an artist-in residence program. Ted Meyer says weaving together humanities and science yields an important result: “There’s a lot of studies that show that if doctors study art, and look at art, their observational skills get better, their communication skills, their bedside manner gets better.”

The veteran Dr. Schwartz seemed to be inspired himself: “This makes me think this is a good thing to do, is ask them to draw something so they understand it when they go over it. It might be kind of cool.”
As for Ellen Cantor, she looks at her photographs a bit differently now. She had back surgery a little over a month ago and was walking a day later.
The exhibit is up until mid-May.