Dr Phil Hammond, broadcaster and sessional GP in Bristol

Does art have a role to play in healthcare?

Have you ever written on a baby sock? No, neither have I. But I know of some sheltered housing residents who have. This may seem a bit bizarre for your tastes, but stick with it. The use of art in healthcare is nothing new. Many hospitals have paintings and even sculptures on site to convert their soulless steel and concrete box into a creative healing space (well that’s the theory). Milton Keynes hospital commissioned sculptor and stonemason, Ekkehard Altenburger, to build an Aesculapian arch in silver grey, beige, and red granite, at its entrance. Atop the arch are stone-carved bottles, jars, mortars, and pestles representing the ancient symbols of medical practice—ah, I feel better already.

Others prefer a more interactive approach. Step forward conceptual artists, Philip Davenport and Lois Blackburn, known as ‘arthur+martha’ who work with society’s marginalised individuals—including carers, the elderly, and asylum seekers— to encourage them to express themselves through art. In their latest exhibition, they worked with sheltered housing residents in Stockport and Manchester to explore ageing and identity. Familiar items, such as prescription medicines, were inscribed with the thoughts of people who had sat quietly in the corner for years, hardly uttering a word. And when baby socks with tags for writing were handed out, the residents were very touched and took great pride and effort in inscribing their thoughts. One resident wrote: ‘The socks are a man’s life. And he took them with him.’ As one reviewer put it: ‘an arthritic, spidery scrawl that would once have been copperplate handwriting becomes unbearably poignant.’1

I was thinking of this as I recently did the usual smash and grab visit to a residential home. You go in there as a GP, look at a blister on a foot, listen to a rattly chest, offer the odd wise word, hand on the shoulder, and off you go. But the health benefits of brief, rushed consultations with stressed doctors are surely far less than sitting with someone, listening to their stories, and then encouraging them to express themselves through art. What’s more useful, a tube of topical ibuprofen on the bedside cabinet, or a collage of memories from a buried childhood?

Blackburn and Davenport met while employed as artists in the NHS. Davenport, a poet, recorded what patients said when he was working in hospitals. ‘You could see the lights switch on. People with memory problems would claim to have no recollection, but then offer amazing stories from when they were four.’1 The couple work sensitively with patients who may be confused or heavily medicated. Recent projects include uncovering how it feels to be hospitalised, and encouraging holocaust survivors to remember recipes and everyday experiences, such as school days, to balance out their darker memories. The intention is to help people rise above stereotypes, recasting them as rounded individuals, not patients or victims.1

As you’d expect, some older people view conceptual art as ‘a bit daft’ but rarely do they refuse to participate and often sessions will end in laughter. A packet of wind relief tablets was relabelled: ‘All’s well that ends well.’ And a postcard bears the words: ‘Skint. Send cheque immediately (if this is dying, I don’t think much to it).’ Even if life is undignified and traumatic, people can still enjoy a laugh.1

In this world of targets and guidelines, important as they are, arthur+martha rang bells with me. The title of their new exhibition, Paracetamol Soup, brings a subversive smile to the face. Medicine may be losing its holistic approach, but it’s great to know that others are taking up the call to empathy. Life is complex and precious memories can be lost, but Blackburn and Davenport have created guidelines for reawakening them. For further information, visit: www.arthur-and-martha.co.uk.G

  1. The Guardian website: Arts equal laughter, with arthur+martha.www.guardian.co.uk/society/2009/apr/29/arthur-martha-artists (accessed 30 April 2009).