Physicians Who Create Art: The Making of The Red Wheelbarrow

uvmmedicine blogger Collin York '20
uvmmedicine blogger Collin York ’20

I got involved in The Red Wheelbarrow because I wanted to maintain my involvement with literature and to have a creative outlet during medical training. I majored in English in college, and despite my subsequent choice to pursue medicine, I have never let literature and the arts stray too far from the center of my experience. Much like muscles, the artistic parts of your brain will atrophy if you don’t use them, and I did not want to allow this to happen. The Red Wheelbarrow has been a great way to keep these parts of my brain active. Further, it has been awesome to connect with other writers and visual artists and to discover just how talented my colleagues are.

Although our magazine has historically focused mostly on a field called the medical humanities, it is my hope to make The Red Wheelbarrow inclusive of art that does not directly relate to medicine. Yes, medicine is important to us – otherwise we wouldn’t be here – but I firmly believe it shouldn’t crowd out other aspects of our existence. If you’ve ever flipped through a collection of poems by William Carlos Williams – whose poem “The Red Wheelbarrow” inspired our name, and who was a practicing pediatrician himself – you’ll see that his art was far from focused on medicine. Sure, the occasional poem of his was probably inspired by a real-life patient encounter, but mostly he seems to be concerned with representing beauty. Williams’ wheelbarrow has nothing to do with medicine, but it still captivates our attention. In this respect, Williams is a role model: He is a physician who also makes art, not merely an artist-physician.

The Red Wheelbarrow, 2015
The Red Wheelbarrow, 2015

There’s this cool idea the clinical psychologist Albert Ellis promoted: That living a good or happy life requires having one or more of what he called “vitally absorbing creative interests.” According to this theory, reading fiction or poetry or producing or appreciating the visual arts are ways of exercising your creative capacity and “actualizing” your potential as a person. The arts can make you more compassionate, help you appreciate the many small and beautiful moments of your day, and add depth to your understanding of yourself and the world. In pursuing our creative interests, I believe we shouldn’t necessarily be bound to the confines of our particular chosen career paths. Sometimes it seems like very goal-oriented people have this sense of guilt for taking breaks from their studies, that any activity that doesn’t directly advance their career goals are distractions. The Larner College of Medicine has done a great job of countering this potential pitfall, and instead encourages us to continue to pursue our interests outside of medicine.

The irony of all this is that producing or appreciating art, I believe, actually can help you become a better physician! I can’t cite any particular studies to back up this assertion, but my feeling is that any person who seeks out a range of experiences and has an abiding interest in creative work will bring all of to their profession and therefore help them better understand and serve their patients.

Along similar lines, I think it would be awesome if The Red Wheelbarrow could diversify its activities beyond just producing the magazine. Although our main effort has been and will continue to be producing the magazine, it would be great to use our group as a platform for connecting and creating. For example, I would love to host a physician who is also a creative writer here at the College. One format the visit could take would be to hold an informal writing workshop where students bring in their work, get feedback from the group, and hear the guest’s wisdom on, say, how to pursue creative interests while juggling the demands of relationships and career. One underappreciated aspect of art is that it is, or ought to be, communal: When we produce and share what we’ve created, we end up strengthening social connections through this shared experience.

  • The Red Wheelbarrow is currently accepting submissions in the literary and visual arts. Deadline is October 30. Learn more
  • View the 2015 issue of The Red Wheelbarrow

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