Art Days 2022: A Two-Day Celebration of the Conversation Between Right and Left Brain

Color interpretation of kidney by Tania Lopez
Kidney by Tania Lopez

When Tania Lopez was 8 years old, she spent long days in the hospital on dialysis for the year preceding the kidney transplant that saved her life. Drawing made those days bearable said Lopez, now 28, and a first-year student at Boston University’s School of Public Health.

“All you can do is draw, and it helped me to get through that (time),” said Lopez, who was born in Mexico and moved with her family to Massachusetts 20 years ago.

In the last five years, her artwork took an unusual, but understandable, turn. Lopez found herself drawing kidneys, and other human organs. She starts out with pencil, followed by bold lines from a black marker and then fills in the design with colored markers and pencils.

“I wanted to have a colorful kidney for my room,” she said when asked what got her started. “I love putting life into the organs because that’s what my kidney brought to me.”

Tania Lopez with her kidney drawings
Tania Lopez with her kidney drawings

Lopez’s creative organ illustrations are on display alongside the artwork of other students, faculty and staff from the Medical Campus at Art Days, a two-day celebration of the conversation between right and left brain that has been ongoing for the past 32 years. Whether it’s a way to decompress, a distraction, or an appreciation of the world beyond classrooms, offices and labs that can lead to self-awareness and expression, the creative arts are integral to the life of many on the Medical Campus.

Now What, Keith Tornheim
Let’s Think Spring, Ann McKee

“It can be a stress reliever for some, or they may just have the urge to create something. Some have been doing it a long time,” said Keith Tornheim, PhD, an associate professor of biochemistry who has served as Art Days faculty advisor for 15 years.

Back in 1967, Tornheim was an undergraduate chemistry major, missing his girlfriend (now his wife) who was spending a study year in France. He wrote some poems and ended up one of five winners in a university poetry contest. Since then, he’s published five books of poetry and one of his poem cycles inspired choreographer Wendy Jehlen to create “Lilith,” a solo dance performance that played at the Boston Center for the Arts this December.

“My art and poetry tend not to reflect the science but that’s not true of all scientist/artists. Some things they do in their science or medical life may give them the inspiration,” said Tornheim.

The stereotype of scientists and doctors being rigid and eschewing creativity did not ring true to second-year medical student Jie Yin. “Yes, scientists do have to follow protocols, but if that line of thinking does not bear fruit, they still must come up with something else,” Yin argued.

Painting of starry sky in vibrant blues and yellow
Starry Sky, Jie Yin

Painting, she said, helps give her the open mind to approach a problem from a new direction.

Born in Shanghai, China, Yin moved to Reno, Nevada, when she was 17. She grew up an occasional painter, and never took lessons. Her interest sharpened when, as a post-bachelor’s degree researcher at the National Institutes of Health and National Cancer Institute, she looked for something more fulfilling to do in her down time.

“Watching television and reading books left me empty inside,” Yin said. She found she wanted to experience the creative mind that provoked the emotions she felt in the shapes and colors in the abstract paintings she’d seen at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“It started out as a way to relax, but as I got better at it, I felt this excitement in my brain that kept me going,” Yin said. The act of painting was an intriguing contradiction, a combination of focus and concentration in putting brush to canvas while ideas, like sparks of electricity, lights and colors, were firing in her mind, she said.

Her interest evolved from abstract art to impressionism, and that led naturally to Van Gogh, and her painting in the Art Days exhibit – a rendering of his masterwork “The Starry Night,” a fictionalized view from his asylum window in Saint Remy, France. She said she was touched by the movement, the kinetic energy of sky, clouds and trees.

“That’s why I’m interested in watercolors because water is so fluid,” Yin said. With watercolors, she felt she could pursue her goal of capturing a fleeting moment in time.

She sees a parallel between her art life and a future in internal medicine, possibly oncology.

“Art is a way you handle people’s emotions. It’s a fluidity in mixing colors and water,” Yin said. “As a future physician, I never know who will show up in a clinic. It’s difficult to control the flow of water. It’s unpredictable, in the way you could encounter a patient who might have a different story.”

Redlining and Flatlining, Rachel Allen

Barbara Corkey, PhD, understands that feeling. She doesn’t have a plan or color scheme when she sits down to paint.

“I couldn’t verbalize where my brain is going. It’s on its own track,” said Corkey, professor emeritus of medicine and biochemistry. “We all need to have multiple lives we go in and out of. Stepping away from science is very important.”

As an undergraduate, she was torn between a chemistry and art major. After six decades as a scientist, she sees the creative thinking process and meticulous lab work as a partnership. There’s no sense in being a creative thinker, she said, if you’re not getting the work done.

“If you don’t get both, you don’t have anything,” said Corkey.

Music was the entry point into the creative mind for President Emeritus Aram Chobanian, MD. A world-renowned cardiologist known for establishing the connection between hypertension and vascular disease, he favored music over medicine growing up.

“As I went along in life, I liked it (music) more and more,” he said. He took cello lessons, and in retirement he has been composing, aided by full orchestration software that can reproduce the various instruments playing the notes he’s composed.

Chobanian’s experience as a faculty member and dean was that many physicians had musical backgrounds. That helped inform his decision to start Art Days 32 years ago.

“I always felt it (a medical education) should be broad. Physicians should not be narrow in their life goals,” said Chobanian. “I urged them to be involved in other things.”

Chobanian credited his late wife Jasmine, a portrait painter educated at Brown University and the Boston Museum School, for being one of those active in keeping the tradition going and he is very proud of his granddaughter, a fourth-year medical student who is exhibiting in this week’s event.

Chobanian lost his wife in 2014 and said the creative arts has meant a lot to him in retirement, as it has for many others coping with isolation and despair brought on by the pandemic.

“The arts, in general, can fill a void, an emptiness and improve the quality of life in times like these,” he said. “I’m pretty old now, and I get a lot of pleasure when, even though I think I’m going to bed, I go to the piano and entertain myself for 20 minutes.”

The Art Days exhibit takes place Feb. 22-23 in Hiebert Lounge. Please see the Facebook album for photos of the exhibit.

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