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Unlocking creativity with Mark Gilbert

In your artist’s statement you say the relationship between the subject and the artist is an integral part of the pictures you produce and that you seek to connect and respond to your subjects and to reflect them and the artistic interaction, in a way that is full and human. How does this process work and what do you mean by “full and human”?

When we look at a portrait, even of a single individual, it’s not just a picture of a person; it’s a picture of a person being looked at. As such a portrait is a testament a relationship, which is in constant motion, evolving over time between the sitter, the portrait and the portraitist.

The mutuality I pursue is a product of what I perceive as our common vulnerabilities; rapport is gently constructed through our interactions. I actively seek the patients’ thoughts and feelings about the process. Patient narratives, and the trust that is generated through sharing stories, enrich and informed the process of portrait creation and the resultant images. Our interactions can be inspiring and often moving. As my relationship with patients strengthens, my own anxieties diminish and I am free to focus on amplifying positive strengths that the patient/sitter demonstrate in abundance. Medicine on the whole focuses on pathology and disease. In my own research I seek to address the aspects of the participants and the relationships they have that make them strong, that make them resilient, that enables, makes them endure, even when they are challenged physically, cognitively and emotionally. At the same time try to sustain awareness that these strengths are also laced with vulnerably and weakness.

When you were artist in residence at The Royal London Hospital you worked in collaboration with maxilla facial surgeon, Professor Iain Hutchison and his patients. Do you think this project had an affect on your and the patients’ wellbeing?

It is over 20 years since I worked with Prof. Hutchison and his patients who had undergone surgery of the head and neck. Most patients were being treated for cancer, some were trauma patients, others were having corrective surgery for congenital facial difference and/or function. The project, entitled Saving Faces, was my introduction to how the arts (in all their forms) have the potential to inform notions of illness, care and caregiving.

In the beginning, Iain had a nebulous hunch that the portraits and the act of being painted may be of benefit to the patients/sitters.  As I acclimatised to my role, I recognized the time spent with participants and the nature of our interactions was fundamental to not only the production process but also the resultant images. Nevertheless, I initially considered the potential notions of catharsis or therapeutic benefits as hugely naïve and beyond the capacity of portraiture. I was to be proved wrong.

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All participants had the opportunity to reflect on other paintings hanging on the walls. Many inquired about the portraits of others and interpreted what they saw. Exposure to the other portraits increased awareness among participants of those in a similar situation to themselves. It diminished the feeling of isolation that can be so prevalent for people living with cancer. The portraits enabled participants  to positively compare and re-evaluate their own experiences, often feeling that their own situation, and health status was not as serious as that of the subject in another painting. The portraits of children, especially, seemed to engender ‘positive’ comparison for participants, helping patient/participants cope better with the challenges they faced.

Participants who were facially disfigured reported difficulties reconciling the differences they believed to exist between their appearance and their personality. Yet, seeing the portraits provided an image of themselves that, they felt, matched their personality. They regarded their painted portraits as “emotionally truthful”. They viewed their portraits as not only representing them physically but also emotionally, stipulating that the portraits showed what they feel about themselves.

Additionally, the conversations between the participants and myself was found to offer patients a medium to discuss concerns and receive support. Patients noted that the nature of the artist/sitter interactions mirrored that of patient/therapist.  Patient and participant, Roland, explained:

“When they asked me if I minded being painted I thought it would be good for me, and I thought it would be good for other people. To make them aware of what can be done. During the painting I used Mark like a doctor, he was getting all my little troubles. I’d tell him things about things that weren’t right, then I’d get a phone call from one of the surgeons and it would all be sorted out”.

Moreover, analysis found the relative informality of the relationship between artist and sitter was important because it was not medically focused, thus empowering participants to set their own agenda and shape their own narrative.

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You are currently working with front line workers all over the States exploring their experience of the last 10 months through discussion and portraiture.  What is your focus for this project and what record of this time will you produce? (This question is a bit clumsy – so do unpick and reword).

The aim of the project is to use arts based methodology to explore the experience of frontline, healthcare workers who have been working during the Covid 19 pandemic in the US. I carry out interviews with participants, I keep a detailed journal reflecting on all interactions and I record all the conversations that generate during portrait sitting. It is hoped that the drawings and/or paintings will visually present aspects of the participant narrative.

As with previous collections the resultant exhibition of the work will offer further opportunities to evaluate audience response and explore in what ways the work can be used in an educational capacity.

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What is the relationship between the artist and the sitter and has this connection changed for you during the Covid-19 pandemic?

When working on earlier studies, I began to refer to the sittings as ‘collaborations’.  I became increasingly aware that the potential for knowing, learning and changing together blurred the traditional artist/sitter boundaries. Although I was the portraitist making the marks on the canvas, I hoped participants would feel able to take the lead as models, conversationalists and authors of their own stories. I, the artist /researcher, become a respectful co-learner. This process of  “drawing out” the stories, enabled nuances of experience to develop a narrative that, informed the paintings, and could be related to by others. The relationships and process of my current study with front line workers here in the US is not significantly different. Over the years I have worked with people experiencing the most traumatic moments of their lives.  However, I have never worked with participants who seem so distressed and emotionally vulnerable.

I have asked you for an image of your artwork for a writing prompt. What have you selected and why did you choose it?

I created the portrait Roger at the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) as part of a research study entitled Portraits of Care (POC) (2006–2008). POC used portraiture to investigate ideas about care and caregiving.

Roger was being treated for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). I initially felt self-conscious when drawing Roger. The unforgiving nature of his disease meant that he was not only unable to speak but also lacking in the capacity for self-expression. Tension, however, dissipated once we started working on the drawings. By drawing Roger, I became more sensitive and attuned to his expressions. The silence we worked in was not an empty void, but a vessel for enhanced awareness and acknowledgment of each other’s presence.

I drew Roger a number of times and created a painting of him too. The painting is more static and as such reflects the limitations Roger faced at the time. The drawing, on the other hand, seems to have a movement and urgency that seems to run counter to the profound physical challenges Roger faced, yet maybe testifies to the inner life and the deep intimacy of our interactions, as we s exchanged glances and in silence, either side of the easel.

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MarkDr Mark Gilbert is Associate with The School of Art and Art History at The University of Nebraska, Omaha, where he is participating faculty on UNO’s Medical Humanities program

As an artist, teacher and researcher, he has worked on a number of high profile art-based research projects using portraiture to illuminate patient and caregiver experience of illness, recovery and care. These studies include Saving Faces at The Royal London Hospital and Portraits of Care at the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC). The resultant artworks were exhibited widely in venues across Europe and the US, including the National Portrait Gallery, London.

In 2014, he was awarded his Ph.D at UNMC. His research focused on the interdisciplinary field of Art and Medicine and recognized that non-discursive methods (e.g. pictures, music, dance, poetry, etc.) can be forms of research.

His most recent study was a two year collaboration with geriatrician, Dr Kenneth Rockwood on an arts based research study exploring the relationships and interactions of patients living with dementia and their partners in care attending the Memory Clinic at Veterans Memorial Hospital, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

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