Seeing the Patient

Visual Literacy Exercise

“Erin & Michaela” Mark Gilbert, 2018 Pastel on paper, 49.75″ x 41.75″

We’re surrounded by images every day, but most times, we don’t stop to actively think about what we’re seeing or how to communicate what we see. For everyday life, that generally serves us just fine; sometimes, though, we want to have a better understanding of what we’re seeing and to be able to put it into words, even if it’s just for ourselves.

AX Board Member Bonny Hill, a professional artist and art teacher, has prepared a visual literacy exercise to help us know what clues to look for so we can get to a deeper meaning and understanding of a piece of artwork.

For this exercise, Bonny selected the portrait Erin & Michaela (at right) that’s on display at AX as part of artist Dr. Mark Gilbert’s exhibition, Seeing the Patient, curated by Dr. Wendy Stewart. Because of the pandemic, AX had to close our doors shortly after the launch of Seeing the Patient, and many folks didn’t have a chance to see it, so we thought this visual literacy exercise would be a unique way for our community to connect with a piece from this outstanding collection until we can reopen our doors to the public.

Just click on “Visual Exercise” to expand the page and learn more. Thanks, Bonny!

Visual Exercise

Step One: Description

Note the title, date, size, and medium. Describe the subject matter. Notice all of the  details you see in the work. It is important to carefully, slowly, and non-judgmentally observe the art.

Step Two: Analysis

Pay close attention to which art elements the artist used. Line, shape, colour, value (lightness or darkness), texture, and space. Look for ways the elements were used to organize the composition using principles of design: rhythm, balance, movement, proportion, variety, emphasis, contrast, and unity.

Step Three: Interpretation

List any feelings, impressions, or moods you get from the artwork – think creatively and imaginatively at this stage. Base your interpretation on what you’ve concluded in the first two steps of the critique process. Guess at the artist’s intention and motivation. If possible, research the artist at this stage and refer to information in the gallery.

Step Four: Judgment/Evaluation

Describe the ways in which the artist has successfully created a work that fulfills their intention and connects with their audience in a meaningful way.

Here’s one way to interpret this portrait based on the four steps above, courtesy of Bonny Hill.

Artist Mark Gilbert has created a large pastel study of two figures: a caregiver holding a young girl. The caregiver’s gaze is on the child’s face. The child looks outward as though in deep thought. The two sit together on the same chair in the corner of a room next to a small table. They both wear warm, comfortable clothing. The girl reaches back to feel the caregiver’s hair while the caregiver holds the child on her lap with both hands around her waist.

The artist has chosen a closely cropped composition with little negative space or background, and in doing so, describes the intimacy of the relationship. The viewer is drawn to the faces, as is always the case in figurative studies which appear to have a higher degree of ‘finish’ than other areas of the work. For the bodies and background spaces, Gilbert has used gestural marks to capture the poses quickly. The free-flowing lines add movement and contrast with the highly detailed faces. The vertical corner line adds stability as the curvy, diagonal lines of the floor mat add to the impression of dynamic motion. The artist has used a limited colour palette; neutral blacks and greys with cool undertones contrasting with the warmth of the skin tones and the vivid yellow on the floor that balance the composition. The pastels describe textures of smooth skin and soft fabrics.

Erin & Michaela clearly communicates the warm relationship between the two figures. My impression is that the child is comfortable and content but having some difficulty staying perfectly still, as evidenced by the way in which her left hand is thrusting outward. She clearly is enjoying her caregiver’s embrace and her caregiver is fully engaged in keeping the child sitting contentedly. The lack of detail and colour in the neutral clothing works to bring emphasis to the faces and to tie the two figures together so closely that it is difficult, at a glance, to discern which limbs belong to the caregiver and which to the child. This adds to the emotional impact of the work.

In his artist’s statement Dr. Gilbert writes: “As an artist and researcher, I have always aspired to create artworks that authentically illuminate the relationships we all rely on in our lives as patients and caregivers. Portraiture as an art form and qualitative methodology embraces association rather than separation. It is through the interaction between artist and sitter that access is sought and given, connections made, trust built, intimacy negotiated, stories exchanged, and knowledge constructed. Moreover it has the potential to engender intimate social connections that can empower the sitters, viewers, and artists alike”.

Dr. Mark Gilbert is Research Associate with the Faculty of Medicine at Dalhousie University and uses arts-based research methods and narrative inquiry to illuminate the relational skills required in clinical interactions and care giving. The portraits in Seeing the Patient, specifically, rely on the interactions and richness relationships he witnessed between children and young people living with epilepsy and their families.

If the portraits in Seeing the Patient attempt to present patients with epilepsy in an authentic and compassionate manner, they truly succeed. Erin & Michaela, in particular, feels like a celebration of, or monument to, the giving and receiving of care and love. Dr. Gilbert’s impressive technical skills and genuine commitment to his profession have resulted in a wonderful, moving exhibition.

Seeing the Patient

Artist: Dr. Mark Gilbert
Curator: Dr. Wendy Stewart
Mark Gilbert’s collection, Seeing the Patient, explores the lived experience of children with epilepsy and their caregivers. It is being launched during March, which is Epilepsy Awareness Month in Canada.
Several portraits will be on display in a variety of mediums including pastels, charcoal, pen, pencil, and monoprint. The subjects, ages five to 25, are all from Dr. Wendy Stewart’s paediatric neurology practice, which is primarily based in Saint John. The portraits reflect in detail and sincerity the rich interactions witnessed between children and young people living with epilepsy and their families.
In Dr. Gilbert’s own words,
“Living with epilepsy can be isolating for both patient and their families… Yet the time I spent with the families who so generously gave their time, were permeated with conversation, laughter, dancing, singing and sometimes silence, as I drew. At other times, there were tears brought on by tiredness and frustration, and then there was the profoundly moving experience of watching the person I was drawing have a seizure and the deep compassion and care of the families as they quietly comforted to their child and held them throughout the process.
I hope that this small community of portraits will offer those who participated, and many who did not, a platform with which to express the challenges and joys of their experience and the richness, resilience and compassion of the relationships I had the privilege to witness.”
About Dr. Mark Gilbert:
Scottish researcher and artist, Dr. Mark Gilbert graduated from Glasgow School of Art in 1991. He has exhibited at numerous venues in Europe and North America. His doctoral dissertation explored the experience of portraiture in a clinical setting for both artist and a small cohort of head and neck cancer patients at the UNMC. He continues to explore the relationship between art and medicine and its application in medical education, and is currently a research associate with the geriatrics program and the Medical Humanities (HEALS) program at Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia, Canada.
About Dr. Wendy Stewart:
Dr. Wendy Stewart is a pediatric neurologist caring for children throughout New Brunswick. She initiated the Humanities Program in New Brunswick, and is very involved in the undergraduate medical program at DMNB. Music is her passion outside medicine and she is a member of a number of diverse musical groups. Dr. Stewart is interested in how music and the arts impact the brain and specifically how they influence the developing medical professional. She has a number of projects in process that combine the humanities with medical education, and will develop and evaluate a longitudinal integrated humanities curriculum.