In spring 2015, I had just completed the first of two solo exhibitions at the McMullen Gallery within the University Hospital working with organ and tissue transplant patients. The gallery manager, Tyler Sherard, had mentioned that a professor in medicine, Dr. Pamela Brett-MacLean, had seen the work. He explained that she ran a program that bridged medicine and the humanities called Arts & Humanities in Health & Medicine at the University of Alberta. I thought I would contact her to learn about the program, but I had no real agenda to pursue other than an introduction. We set a meeting time, and when I walked in, I had no idea that the course of my life was about to change radically. After about 30 minutes of talking about my practice and MFA research, she asked me, very honestly, if I would like to do a Ph.D. with her in psychiatry.
Earlier that year, I had begun thinking about the next step in my career, and a Ph.D. was on my mind. However, I didn’t feel that completing a doctorate in Visual Arts (something that was beginning to be offered by a small number of universities in Canada) would help me accomplish what I was vaguely beginning to understand I needed. Neither of us had a clear picture of what this Ph.D. would look like as the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry had never had an artist completing any form of graduate work. Yet we both felt this uncharted territory of bringing an artist into the health sciences could be a needed addition. Pam invited me to the Department of Psychiatry’s Research Day in mid-June to meet the department’s graduate chair, Dr. Andy Greenshaw, to see if this opportunity were something the department would be interested in. Within minutes of meeting him, he wholeheartedly understood the potential of having an artist conducting mental health research, potentially even more than myself at that time, and he invited me to submit an application to enter as a Masters student with the hopes that I would transfer into the Ph.D. program after a year of studies. Over the summer, I was accepted into the program and began in the fall semester of 2015.
Pam and I set up weekly meetings, that have continued to this day, to begin the exploration of what this Ph.D. could be. She continued to emphasize something that I would not fully understand until I was much further into my studies: this doctorate was a journey. Because this was relatively uncharted territory, we would have to accept detours, areas of no return, and embrace the unexpected. We weaved our way through a relatively new focus in Canadian health research called patient-oriented research, then into a broad survey into how the arts have been used in health and medicine which helped me grasp this vast, yet underdeveloped area of health research. While neither of these became the focus of my Ph.D., they helped me develop new sensibilities along my journey.
Over 2016, the core activities of my doctorate all fell into place: a chance conversation with Andy where he asked me if I would like to go to Iqaluit to present at a conference, I became a participating artist and co-investigator on an evolving project on head and neck cancer and the arts, and a small artists package I had sent to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health would find its way to the VP of Education, Dr. Ivan Silver. At the time, I had no idea what exactly these meant or how they would even fit into my studies, but there was a deep sense that each of these could lead to something wholly unexpected.
As the years unfolded, I had so many life-changing experiences. I saw Iqaluit. I saw a community with so much hurt, yet I saw hope. I saw people battling and living with cancer. I saw their treatments, their hurt, and the uncertainty of the future. I saw children at CAMH. I saw their trauma, their hurt, but they were children and I saw them laugh and help each other through each of their journeys. I saw Derek and Luanna in the Mood and Anxiety Unit. I saw so many things in them that spoke to me in ways that only art could express. Each of these experiences changed the course of my life, how I would see my life, and painted a journey of illness, recovery, and healing. Trauma, Time, Healing.
I saw how this journey was about my trauma, my time, and my healing; something I wasn't expecting to explore, but one that has helped me, has helped my family, and has pathed a new future.
This journey has been one of the most meaningful experiences in my life, and I am forever grateful to Pam and Andy for changing the course of my life. It healed me and opened me onto a new journey that I can only describe as spiritual, and I look forward to the future with hope.
I want to thank my wife, Candace, whose beauty and mind would rock the ancient world. To my daughters who placed me in a life of all that came before and after me and gave me the hope this journey so sorely needed. To my mom who has been through it all with me, who cared for me, and who continues to be the bedrock of our family. To my dad who gave me the curiosity into the arts, who played me endless music, and has become my unofficial assistant.
To Pam, who changed my life and helped me on this unknown healing journey. And to her openness to all the detours in this journey is something unique. You have left a mark on my life. To Andy, who presented me with opportunities that were so unexpected and meaningful and reshaped this dissertation and the life that encompasses it. To Brian, whose passion for the arts and generosity has given me the confidence that this work could reach many different people. To Minn, whose searching into the arts led me down one of the most meaningful projects and paths in my life.
Again, to Candace and my girls, I cannot wait to see where we will go next.