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Art and Medicine

Hear how art education improved nurses’ clinical observation skills and strengthened empathy, which became valuable tools during the COVID-19 pandemic.

May 11, 2022

Illustrated portrait of Grace Calame-Mars and Carolyn Halpin-Healy

Have you heard people say visiting a museum is good for you? Why is that? Grace Calame-Mars, a Nursing Professional Development Specialist, and Carolyn Halpin-Healy, an Art Educator at The Met, know the first-hand benefit of art in museums as a tool to help our well-being. Hear about the art therapy program they helped organize for medical professionals at NYU Langone Hospital, where close-looking exercises improved clinical observation skills and strengthened empathy, which became valuable tools during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Grace Calame-Mars:
Well, when you look at a piece of art and you really look at it, what are you seeing? It really forces you to observe.

So if it increases your observational skills, it’s going to help you as a clinician, increase your assessment skills with patients and families.

Barron B. Bass:
Spending time with a work of art can offer us more than just an escape from the moment. Sometimes it does the opposite: bringing us up close to the heart of it all—our shared humanity—so that we can better help those suffering or in pain.

This week on Frame of Mind, we’ll hear from Museum Educator Carolyn Halpin-Healy, who helped design a program using art to enhance the skills of medical professionals in providing patient care. Called “Reflecting Art in Nursing Practice,” the program is a joint project of NYU Langone Health and The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Education department.

Among the participants was Grace Calame-Mars, a nursing professional development specialist, who also helped implement the program at her workplace. Both women discovered that when staff had the opportunity to connect with works of art during the pandemic, it supported not just patients, but their own mental health.

Grace Calame-Mars:
Well, my name is Grace Calame-Mars and I am a nursing professional development specialist. And you’re probably saying, “Well, what’s a nursing professional development specialist?” So, it’s a combination of education, helping staff grow and develop professionally, helping in the institution and hospitals, develop standards based on evidence-based practice, and making sure that practice does reflect those standards.

It’s been tremendously challenging. The nurses have been asked to do a tremendous task of caring for a new population. And it was always a problem in the sense that they were always stressed. And now we have that added stress of COVID.

Personally, as well, my mom is actually someone who is currently having memory issues. And one of the things that is very good for elderly adults who have memory issues is that sense of touch and being able to hug her is a big thing. So for me, I was not able to hug her for months. 

The human experience of not being able to hug your loved one was very, I think, devastating for quite a few people. 

The only thing we could actually count on was that things were changing and it was always going to be changing. And we just had to kind of go with that.

Carolyn Helpin-Healy:
My name is Carolyn Helpin-Healy. I’m the Executive Director of Arts and Minds. And I’m also a freelance museum educator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“Reflecting Art in Nursing Practice” was a collaboration between NYU Langone Hospital Center and the ACCESS team in the Education department at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. And we collaborated to design a program that would invite nurses to discover ways of being with art and connecting with it in ways that would touch on their nursing practice.

Grace Calame-Mars:
So once the program was offered to staff, I helped with making sure that the program got advertised to the institution and the nurses and other disciplines were able to attend.

Carolyn Halpin-Healy:
So I was the lead facilitator in the classroom, and I chose the works of art that we would focus on. And I designed the exercises that we would do.
We took into account the time limitations in a nurse’s daily schedule, and we developed a course in four parts. So I went down to NYU four times and we looked at works of art that were built around four themes: observation, description, communication, and empathy.

Grace Calame-Mars:
And I thought it would be something that would give them a time to just step away from the stress of the bedside and be in another zone and see something beautiful and reflect on it a little bit.

Carolyn Halpin-Healy:
So I open each session with a meditation that is meant to, you know, help them set their mornings aside and carve out the space and time for themselves.

Grace Calame-Mars:
I found that it was actually relaxing to just look at the art pieces. And by doing some of these exercises, it made you a little bit more aware of what are you doing actually in your life to help yourself?

Depending on the session, she would sometimes lead by saying, “Well, maybe today we’ll focus on observation.” And she said she would have a few pieces of art today that we’re going to look at.

Carolyn Halpin-Healy:
We have a painting at the Met called The Harvesters. So that was my first image.

Painting of people on wheat field, some are working and others are eating and resting under a tree.Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Netherlandish, 1525–1569). The Harvesters, 1565. Oil on wood, 46 7/8 x 63 3/4 in. (119 x 162 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1919 (19.164)

Grace Calame-Mars:
And each table would observe, and maybe we’d have three people at that table. One person would observe and tell the rest of the table what they saw.

Carolyn Halpin-Healy:
I see that figure lying down.

Grace Calame-Mars:
They look like they’re having lunch or they’re just laying around relaxing.

Carolyn Halpin-Healy:
I see these other people working.

Grace Calame-Mars:
Like they’re harvesting some type of wheat.

Carolyn Halpin-Healy:
There’s a landscape in the background. Way, way, way in the back, it looks like there’s a tiny ship. And then it begins to move into interpretation and we might hear things like…

Grace Calame-Mars:
“Oh, why are all those people just sitting around, while the rest of everyone else is working?

Carolyn Halpin-Healy:
And then there’ll be, there’s usually a little back and forth about that. And what does that mean? Are they taking turns?

Grace Calame-Mars:
People might think, “Well maybe they’re just having a lunch break.” And once they are done, the other people who are working may come.

So if I walked up to that and see those people sitting under the tree, just relaxing or eating, what would I say? How would I open that dialogue? So you never know what’s going to come back at you if you have an open-ended question. And the same thing would go for, if you walk into a room with a patient, and you’re observing things, not to jump to conclusions, but to maybe ask an open-ended question to get a response. Especially if you’re observing maybe a patient that might be grimacing or a family member that might be grimacing.

For us, when we see a grimace, we automatically tend to jump to maybe the patient’s in pain. But maybe we can say, oh, I see you’re grimacing—is there an issue?

And then, there were other times when she asked us to actually draw what we saw.

Carolyn Halpin-Healy:
People are nervous about that. Everyone, most adults feel very judged and they judge themselves most harshly.

But my reason for asking them to draw is not to make a good picture or a copy, but it’s to get them to look closely and to focus.

Grace Calame-Mars:
I remember a sculpture called Seated Couple.

Sculpture of couple sitting on a round bench, with one figure holding their arm over the other figure's shoulder.Dogon artist. Figure: Seated Couple, 18th-early 19th century. Wood, metal, H. 28 3/4 × W. 8 5/8 × D. 8 in. (73 × 21.9 × 20.3 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Gift of Lester Wunderman, 1977 (1977.394.15)

Carolyn Halpin-Healy:
It’s from the Dogon people of Mali, and it’s been in The Met collection for quite some time.

Grace Calame-Mars:
And she asked us to draw either the full sculpture or section, whatever we felt comfortable drawing.

Carolyn Halpin-Healy:
It shows two people sitting together on the same round bench. It’s quite extraordinary because it seems to have been carved from a single cylinder of wood. And the artist made it by removing material. So this in itself is interesting. It’s very different from building up a sculpture, say the way you do when you work with clay, but when you carve in wood, you’re removing material.

Grace Calame-Mars:
When you’re looking at it, close up, you realize the details that are in there and you didn’t really realize until you try to draw it. So just focusing a little bit and trying to get it on paper was so challenging that it made you think about, “What is it that I’m not really focusing on in my patient that I might be missing just by looking at it on the surface?”

Carolyn Halpin-Healy:
It’s typically people are trying to figure out the gender, the sex of the figures. It’s not immediately obvious because although the female figure has prominent breasts, the male figure has very prominent pectoral muscles. And so that area of the body is, it takes a little minute because it’s more about an abstraction of the figure into shapes.

Grace Calame-Mars:
Now, especially today, gender identity is a huge issue and how we approach patients and families. So as we looked at this sculpture, the only things that were really defining whether it was a male or a female, was that there was a beard on the male and the male actually had his arm over her shoulder.
And it looked very protective—the emotion that it was portraying was protecting her. 

Carolyn Halpin-Healy:
I can’t get out of my head the time I was there with a bunch of high school kids. And one of the boys took this as an opportunity to flirt with one of the girls and put his arm around her. And so, you know, there’s just kind of, there’s sort of a long history with this piece. And the nurses respond very differently.

Grace Calame-Mars:
Really when you walk into a room, it may not be so easy to say, “I identify as male. I identify as female. How do I identify? Non-binary? What exactly am I?” So those would be questions that as a clinician, you would want to pose to the person that you’re approaching and say, “How do you identify?” So this just actually kind of helped us try to look at the details because you may make assumptions as you approach and actually jump to the wrong assumption.

Carolyn Halpin-Healy:
Art has something to tell all of us.

Particularly, you know, we had a session on empathy. And you know, what can I, an art educator, tell nurses about empathy? I didn’t feel I had anything to tell them, but I did sort of feel that art gets so close to what it means to be human. 

Whether we work in the arts or we work in the healthcare field.

Grace Calame-Mars: 
How can you empathize with what you’re seeing? One of those, I think was the one with Socrates, The Death of Socrates. That was a big one for that.

Painting of Socrates sitting on a bed, taking a hemlock from a man, surrounded by his followers who are grieving.Jacques Louis David (French, 1748–1825). The Death of Socrates. Oil on canvas, 51 x 77 1/4 in. (129.5 x 196.2 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Wolfe Fund, 1931 (31.45)

Carolyn Halpin-Healy:
It’s a painting by Jacques Louis David, the French painter.
And so we see Socrates among his followers in a sort of a prison setting. And he is sitting on a bier, sort of a high, kind of a bed. And he is reaching for the cup of hemlock that’s being extended to him by the executioner.
Grace Calame-Mars:
Because he was getting ready to drink poison. And everyone around him was in pain from anticipating his death. And they were all heartbroken about that. 
Carolyn Halpin-Healy:
We don’t see the face of the executioner. We just see the red color of his garment. We see the tension in his body and we see his hand brought to his eyes. So there’s a, there’s a great sense of shame in the executioner. And Socrates is just completely casual. 
Grace Calame-Mars:
One of the things that was important to take away from that is that we do have patients that do pass, that do die. This pandemic definitely showed us that. But how do you empathize with them and their family? And even though it’s something painful, make the passing less painful, by giving them things that they may need.
Here, we had patients and families on video. So that they can see their loved ones or talk to their loved ones before they passed. So the nurse was the conduit to that—we actually had a group that also helped with that situation, that facilitated that contact. So, in a way, learning how to get that empathy across, I think, was impactful for this pandemic.

Barron B. Bass:
Thank you for listening. This has been Frame of Mind, an art and wellness podcast from The Met. To see images of the artworks Carolyn and Grace discussed in this episode, please visit The Met’s website at, where you’ll find bonus articles, features, resources, and videos on the endless connection between art and wellness.

Frame of Mind is produced by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Goat Rodeo. At The Met: Head of Content Sofie Andersen, Executive Producer Nina Diamond, Associate Producer Bryan Martin, and Production Coordinators Harrison Furey and Lela Jenkins. At Goat Rodeo: Rebecca Seidel is Lead Producer. Megan Nadolski is Executive Producer. Production Assistance from Char Dreyer, Isabelle Kerby-McGowan, Cara Shillenn, and Max Johnston.

Senior producer is Ian Enright. Story Editing from Morgan Springer. Series Illustration by Sophie Schultz. I’m your host, Barron B. Bass. A special thanks to our guest on this episode, Reena Esmail. This podcast is made possible by Bloomberg Philanthropies and Dasha Zhukova Niarchos. If you liked this episode, please leave us a rating or review and share it with your friends. 

Supported by

Bloomberg Philanthropies

and Dasha Zhukova Niarchos.

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