AMAM Highlights Disabled Artists in A Picture of Health

Julia Peterson, Arts & Culture Editor

Since mid-January, visitors to the Allen Memorial Art Museum who climb the stairs to the Ripin Gallery have been able to peruse the exhibit A Picture of Health: Art and the Mechanisms of Healing. The exhibit includes everything from paintings and sculptures to amulets and an interactive rotorelief, all of which depict or were intended to be involved with health and treatment.

Assistant Professor of Renaissance and Baroque Art History Christina Neilson, who co-curated the exhibition with State University of New York Buffalo’s Associate Professor Frances Gage, said that the exhibit is unique because it allows viewers to make crosscultural connections between diverse healing objects.

“It’s a different type of exhibition from a traditional or conventional exhibition in terms of the broad range of objects and the wide array of cultures that are represented, but also in terms of the approach,” she said. “We’re really interested not just in showing beautiful things, though there are some beautiful things in the exhibition. We’re interested in exploring the effect that these objects had on viewers and that we can see interesting connections between cultures in terms of the way that these objects have the potential to heal.”

Amelia Kemler, OC ’15, one of the exhibit’s organizers, agreed. “It was interesting to compare how different regions and cultures perceived the body and the practices used to either heal oneself or ward off potential hazards,” Kemler said in an email to the Review.

Although the title of the exhibit might suggest that stereotypical paintings of darkened operating theaters and other classic depictions of sickness would dominate the scene, the works presented tell a very different story. A Picture of Health is a testament to humanity’s shared experience of healing, and is imbued with a sense of constantly striving for “better,” however it may be defined.

“The intent of this exhibit is to present a complex picture of health,” Neilson said. “What we’re not interested in is representations of the healing process. That’s something that’s been done many times. [Instead], we approached this exhibition from the perspective of an artist’s take on the subject.”

The pieces included in the exhibit do not end with portrayals of physical, mental or spiritual health. Works like Burton Silverman’s 1956 painting “A Bus Stop in Montgomery,” which depicted a segregated bus stop during the Civil Rights movement and Sue Coe’s photo-etching of Irish Republic Army member Bobby Sands are intensely political.

Neilson said the exhibit defines health broadly. “How this exhibition touches on social and political issues … might be somewhat surprising for this topic,” she said. “In designing this exhibit, we were thinking about health very broadly — about physical and mental health, yes, but we’re also looking at social and political health.”

Neilson spoke on the diversity of viewpoints and traditions that visitors to the gallery experience with this exhibit. “[A Picture of Health] explores the healing power of art from a number of different perspectives, both cultural and also in terms of how art itself has been understood to heal,” she said. “It is quite widely known and acknowledged that art can heal, but we were interested in how this worked.”

The artists featured in A Picture of Health add to the diversity of perspectives highlighted in the exhibit. One section specifically presents work by disabled artists, though the exhibit itself is located in a gallery only accessible by stairs.

Most of the pieces are culled from the AMAM’s own collection, but there are also works on loan from Oberlin’s Clarence Ward Art Library and the Mudd library special collections, as well as from the Dittrick Museum of Medical History in Cleveland.

The exhibit is arranged such that the constrained space of the balcony-like Ripin Gallery becomes an advantage. Visitors who start at the designated beginning will walk from works focusing on the spiritual to works that depict more sociopolitical, psychological and anatomical portrayals of health. While it is clear that these are not hard-and-fast categories and that there is significant interplay between all of the pieces, the fact that visitors must experience the art in a certain order adds to the cohesiveness of the exhibit.

College first-year Elizabeth Altier, who visited the exhibit, said the arrangement of the pieces worked. “I thought that the exhibit itself was organized very well, and that the spread of information and artifacts from all over and from different time periods was good.”

A Picture of Health challenges expectations and celebrates a diverse understanding of what it means to be well.