'Can art save lives?': Artist explores intersection of art, medicine

David Floyd • Aug 1, 2017 at 10:52 PM

Eric Avery has possessed a longstanding interest in both medicine and art.

So much so that his art professor at the University of Arizona encouraged him to go to medical school.

“My answer was, ‘Well, artists can’t be doctors,’ ” Avery said. “And he said, ‘You ought to try or you’ll look back on your life and regret that you never tried to do this.’ ”

For 20 years, Avery was the HIV psychiatrist at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas, and he has spent his career finding ways to combine the seemingly disparate worlds of medicine and art.

“Part of my job as a psychiatrist was to make art about what I did,” Avery said. “My lifetime work has been to try to, No. 1, show that you can be a physician and an artist at the same time.”

Now an associate professor emeritus at the university, Avery lives in New Hope, Pennsylvania, where he produces art full-time.

“My life work has really been to show how art and medicine can relate and to answer a question: ‘Can art save lives?’ ” Avery said.

Avery’s artwork tends to be tied back to this fundamental question.

One of Avery’s installations occurred on World AIDs Day at the Fogg Museum at Harvard University. He put a clinic in the museum and moved a medical practice into the space so that doctors could practice medicine.

“If (medicine is) an art, I thought, ‘Well, let’s put it in the museum where art is,’” he said.

He calls displays like this “medical actions.”

Many of Avery’s works have an educational component to them as well. One booklet, “Pictures that Give Hope,” helps patients understand the physiological aspects of the HIV virus through pictures.

“In my clinic, I had learned that patients didn’t know what a virus was,” Avery said. “They knew they had HIV — no idea what it was.”

The pictures in the book illustrate basic concepts about the condition, like what T-cells look like and how medication can affect a body suffering from HIV.

The booklet has been used as an educational tool in Texas, Alabama, Georgia and was eventually translated into Spanish.

Avery encourages doctors to find a pastime that helps them come to terms with their daily tasks, which can oftentimes be grim by nature.

“It could be golf, it could be running, it could be any activity that helps in a psychological way to process emotions and take time out to cook, to think, to imagine, to renew the self,” Avery said.

Art has acted as Avery’s way of processing the daily grind, and on Aug. 11, Avery will deliver a grand round for students in the East Tennessee State University Quillen College of Medicine.

The presentation is titled “Art as Medicine/Medicine as Art” and will occur at 11 a.m. Aug. 11 at the Votaw Auditorium, 325 North State of Franklin.

The presentation is free and open to the public.

“The pendulum has swung very far … toward evidence-based medicine,” said Dr. Karl Goodkin, the chair of the ETSU Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science. “And that’s all well and good, but there is a point where you can’t look everything up in a journal.”

Goodkin indicated there is still an art surrounding the practice of determining the best treatment option for a patient.

“I think that that’s where the connection is made very explicitly with Eric,” Goodkin said.

And Avery has established a rather impressive resume. Specializing in part as a printmaker, two of Avery’s pieces have been bought by the British Museum, and his prints have appeared in numerous collections at locations like the Firestone Library at Princeton University, the Library of Congress, and the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library at Yale University.

Fundamentally, the trajectory of Avery’s career has its roots in the encouragement his professor gave him at the University of Arizona.

“He said, ‘Eric, you’ll always make friends. Go have an interesting life.’ ”