Ted Meyer and Dr. Shelley Cohen Konrad: Art, Medicine, and Social Change

“I have not the slightest idea from where they come from,” reflects Ted Meyer about his most recent collection of paintings, created amidst the COVID10 pandemic.  The paintings are vibrant and whimsical. They include expansive pink desert landscapes and bright blue swirling skies through which fantastical horned creatures and lovers seem to buoy across.    “Maybe I just can’t do work about the world ending right now because I need a fantasy to escape to,” he offers as a possible explanation, quickly following this with self-reproach that he should get back to doing “more serious work.”  

Ted Meyer is a nationally recognized artist, curator and patient advocate. He helps patients express the reality of their experiences through art and share their truths with medical students and professionals as a path to creating more empathic understanding. The “more serious work” he is referring to (and is most well-known for) includes a rich and compelling collection of artwork and patient stories around illness: his own genetic illness and the illnesses of others.  Ted was diagnosed with Gaucher Disease as a child (an enzyme deficiency that affects bones and joints), and his rare niche mixes art, medicine, and stories of healing and survival.  He spent much of his childhood in severe pain, and his work is influenced by the many hospital stays he endured as a child, where he began to mix art and medical supplies. Many of his early paintings include contorted graphic skeletal images, a reflection of his childhood belief that he would not live past 30. New drug treatments and joint replacements, however, completely changed the trajectory of both his life and his art.  He is now 62 years old and has dedicated many of those years to sharing the experiences of others’ trauma and illness through art, advocacy, and storytelling. 

See more art work at tedmeyer.com

Shelley in her office with one of Ted paintings

As part of this, he’s collaborated with Shelley Cohen Konrad PhD, LCSW, FNAP,  Director of UNE School of Social Work, who focuses much of her own work on art’s healing and transformative powers.  “Ted and I met serendipitously in LA, and we knew right away that we had ‘like minds’ and wanted to work together,” shares Shelley. Ted has traveled to Maine to present as part of UNE’s Interprofesional programming, but most of their work together has been national and international.  They’ve been keynotes at the National Center for Interprofessional Education and Practice (the Nexus), Collaborating across Borders, and for All Together Better Health in Oxford.   “Ted shares his art, his personal story, and stories from the many patients he’s worked with, while I offer scholarly background and theory,” explains Shelley, then adds with a modest smile “I’m the boring part of the duo, really.  Ted’s the one who moves hearts and minds.”

Nexus Summit Blog with Ted and Shelley

“My artistic world is somewhat bifurcated,” Ted shares. “I will always paint and I will always interview, but for very different reasons.”  Painting is almost a form of meditation for Ted, whereas, his interviews and collaborative art with individuals around illness are more of a calling.  He feels compelled to share the stories that now flood his inbox.   As part of his Scarred for Life Project, that he’s now been doing for over 20 years, he’s created a collection of almost 100 artistically enhanced monoprints taken directly from the scarred skin of his subjects.  Each image is accompanied by a photographic portrait taken by Ted and a written narrative by the subject that tells a unique and intriguing story of medical crisis, resilience and healing. 

Image from Scarred for Life Project: Broken back (this was the first in the series)

As an artist-in-residence at UCLA med school and now at USC, Ted has facilitated interviews between patients and doctors that reveal the major gaps that exist within the medical system.   “It’s opposite of art therapy, really” he shares, “we use the art and interviews to express to medical students and health professionals what life is like from the perspective of the patient.”  He’s curated innovative gallery shows that engage faculty and students around topics of how to improve medical student’s observation and listening skills, empathic engagement, and comfort with ambiguity.  The gallery is now a part of the core medical school curriculum.  “I think often health professionals forget that what to them is just a routine event may be life changing for their patients.”    Patients may miss important details due to anxiety or fear.  Intimidation may prevent them from asking crucial questions.  “This is translatable to health and social work practice as well,” Shelley adds, “we have to look at each patient as an individual and consider the context.  You can’t assume anything.”   

Ted Meyer stands before his Scarred for Life collection

They both stress the gravity of miscommunication in the healthcare field.  “It’s not just fluff” says Shelley, “when students aren’t trained to listen to their patients outside of just their presenting symptoms, they make poor judgment calls about their health, which can lead to serious errors.” Meyer predicts that with technological advancements in medical diagnostics and treatment, it will increasingly become the “humanity skills” that distinguish health professionals from one another – empathy, communication, and engagement with their patients.  “There’s our next presentation!” proclaims Shelley.  

Image from Scarred for Life Project: Damaged leg from suicide bomber

Shelley disagrees that Ted’s most recent paintings are not serious.   Sometimes art is an intentional process, while other times we are unconsciously swept by its creative and/or healing powers in ways we ourselves may not understand.   Out of darkness can emerge our most joyful creations, perhaps a testament to the resiliency of the human spirit.  In a joint interview, both Shelley and Ted reflect on the events of this past year with a somber reverence.    In many ways, these events – the COVID19 pandemic, rising white supremacy, increasing political polarization, the growing urgency of environmental crises etc.- have only exposed the many injustices, disparities, and global crises that already exist and have existed for years.   Both Ted and Shelley find forward to be nothing short of unnerving. Tremendous challenge lies ahead, but so too do many opportunities to act and affect change.  To borrow the words from writer and activist Ossie Davis, “any form of art is a form of power; it has impact, it can affect change – it can not only move us, it makes us move.”

Both Shelley and Ted continue their work around advocacy, health, art, and narrative.  Shelley works as a consultant to the national center advising on patient-informed education practice and is currently co-editing a book with Dr. Michal Sela-Amit from USC, Social Work and the Arts: Grounds for New Horizons. The book provides a comprehensive look at the philosophical, political, and humanistic roots of working with the arts in social work, and its potential for enhancing social work research, practice, and education.  Ted continues his residency at USC and will always paint for himself as well as share the stories of others.  They have not yet scheduled their next talk, but rest assured, it will come and it will undoubtedly offer new and exciting creative insights.

Check out Ted’s TEDMED talk: Portrait of the patient experience

For more on art and social change check out our archived post about our Applied Arts and Social Justice Certificate: How to use art in social work practice