THE WORK OF ARTIST/PSYCHIATRIST ERIC AVERY
On November 30 and December 1, 1997, something revolutionary took place at Harvard's Fogg Art Museum. There, inside an elegantly proportioned wooden structure reminiscent of a minimalist Roman temple, physicians and other practitioners with the Multi-Disciplinary AIDS Program at Cambridge City Hospital tested, treated and counseled AIDS patients. With both short ends of the 8-by-10-foot installation open, museum visitors could watch whatever went on in the clinic. Papering the outside of the long walls, a repeated linocut print depicted a patient negotiating the health care labyrinth, overlaid by a diagram of the process by which the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) replicates itself.
The artist who created the Art as Medicine/Medicine as Art exhibit at the Fogg Museum was Eric Avery, M.D., nationally acclaimed printmaker, UTMB assistant professor of psychiatry, director of the university's HIV psychiatry services and associate member of the Institute for the Medical Humanities. “The thing that I'm most proud of with this piece is that it was real life,” he says. “It wasn't about medicine; it was medicine.” You can find more about this exhibit by going to the website listed above.
By bringing medicine itself—not just the representation of medicine—into an environment explicitly designated for art, he blurs the boundary between the two.
“My mother was an artist; my father was a doctor; so I've always been trying to figure out the relationship between art and medicine,” explains Avery, who received his undergraduate degree in art from the University of Arizona and his medical degree from UTMB.
Conducting clinical practice inside an art gallery or museum is Avery's way of protecting and preserving medicine as an art form in the era of marketplace health care. “If business can move into medicine, in the form of managed care, it makes sense to take the sacred part of medicine, the healing part, and move it into a protected aesthetic space,” Avery says. “The question is, ‘Is medicine art?' I think it is. The proof is that I got it into these spaces.”
Eric Avery's work has drawn the attention of museum curators from Boston to San Diego. Prints by him belong to the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the New York Public Library, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Houston's Menil Collection, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and more than a dozen other institutions around the country.
“His work combines marvelous artistic qualities with the kind of intensity of message and commitment that's missing from prints done more as art for art's sake,” notes Marjorie E. Cohn, Carl A. Weyerhaeuser Curator of Prints at the Harvard University Art Museum, which owns four works by Avery.
Humanism has always imbued Eric Avery's art, both in the ideals it expresses and in its reflection of artistic tradition. From Renaissance altar pieces and Dürer etchings to Mexican folk-art retablos, he borrows familiar elements and transforms them—sometimes hauntingly, sometimes playfully, sometimes both.
“What gives his work resonance for me is the way that he updates quite well-known images,” says art historian and IMH associate professor Mary Winkler. “He quotes them and makes them into his own. You can enjoy his prints without recognizing the reference, but you understand them better if you do, because a lot of times, his choice of the images he uses is part of what he wants to say.”
Avery creates those images in the 1896-vintage corner store he restored in Galveston's East End Historic District five blocks from the UTMB campus. Like the building's original owners, he lives on the second floor. Downstairs is the studio with his carving and printing equipment and the vats, beaters and dryers he uses to make two kinds of paper for his prints. Fashioned from mulberry bark boiled with soda ash, the Japanese style has a gossamer translucency. Formed from flax and cotton (occasionally recycled from hospital linens) and often silky banana leaf fiber, the Western style has a velvety heft. When it's slightly damp, he can press it into the carved grooves of the block, leaving the embossed evidence of the knife that carved the image eloquently visible on the finished product.
“The most expressive part of a wood block is the cut-out part,” he says. “If you need to let out the tension and stress of being a doctor, you can do it with a wood block.”
Every medical specialty involves its own stressors. For Avery, psychiatric evaluations top the list. He's done more than 1500—with patients with AIDS and other medical illnesses, with inmates at the women's unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in Texas City, half of whom are HIV positive.
“For me art and medicine are the same thing, and I do them both simultaneously,” Avery says.
For either an artist or a physician, that perspective is unsettling. Could the therapy Avery performs as a psychiatrist be art? Could the linoleum block prints that he produces in his studio heal?
Eric Avery insists that they can. “The art of healing is a sacred art,” he explains. “Art stands in opposition to all the bad things that happen in life, which is where physicians stand. That's what doctors do—affirm life. And that's what artists do.”