I remember the exact moment when I became aware of the medical humanities, casually taking in a poster on the student notice board in Durham medical school whilst attended a meeting about a potential arts and anatomy collaboration. Having wrestled with the locality of my practice in the conventional art world for years, I felt a wave of relief that this could be the space where I was honoured freedom to experiment interdisciplinarily. Since 2011, I’ve been contributing to the field of medical humanities through my work with anatomy, medicine, human sciences and pathology, nationwide and internationally. Assuming my role as Artist in Residence at Newcastle, Northumbria and Durham anatomy laboratories, I observed, documented and reflected on the context of anatomy education, and developed methods of integrating visual arts into anatomy and medical pedagogy, both independently and in collaboration with medical educators. Project ANATOME (2011-2015) has been widely disseminated through exhibitions, conferences and publications.
An invitation arrived in 2013, to contribute a chapter to the proposed Edinburgh Companion for the Critical Medical Humanities. This was to be a significant point in my journey as an artist who found herself investing more time in serving medical education than in manifesting her own ideas and artworks exploring human mortality. The gathering and articulating of thoughts for my chapter – The body beyond the anatomy lab: (Re)addressing arts methodologies for the critical medical humanities – made me pause and reflect on the core essence of my creative interest with the corporeal body, as well as the very nature of my role as artist. My conclusion was, I needed to be working much closer to the materiality of the dying body than that of the embalmed cadavers in the anatomy lab.
In Summer 2015, I became a healthcare support worker, caring for terminally ill people in their homes. It was a strategic move for my art practice. In providing intimate care for people approaching certain decline and death, I could position myself where encounters with the dying process were more palpable. No sooner had I completed my first care shift with a client at end of life than I realised I had found the profession I was born to do. Caring for a lady who was to arrive at her death only a week after this first shift left me with a distinct feeling of groundedness and purpose, a feeling of ‘coming home’ to myself and my inspirations. Read more about my journey HERE NOW.
This month, I launched my new website Beyond Dead Weight as a Visual Artist and Carer. I mostly resist the obligation to label myself with a title as it can be a reductive act, but this re-branding feels unique and necessary in not separating my experiences as an artist and carer working daily with the personal, societal and cultural realities, ideas and perceptions of mortal existence. In my chapter for ECCMH, I discuss this concept of artists upholding duo roles in the arts, humanities and human sciences by drawing on Felicity Callard’s and Des Fitzgerald’s notion of interdisciplinary entanglement, which continues to be widely published and discussed, as well as being the opening chapter in the book (click here to access their latest publication). I’m very much at the beginning of my journey as artist/carer and am remaining open to all that this will entail with balancing and negotiating time and energy expenditure in working care and investing in practice-led research and art making. There is no particular rhythm or rhyme to any of this. It’s all an experimental process.
My ultimate ambition is to design and launch an interdisciplinary project that investigates the use and application of drawing as a means of exploring end of life, for both the dying person and those bearing witness. An element of this would be to complete training in Soul Midwifery, qualifying me as an independent soul midwife (also known as a ‘Death Doula’ and ‘Death Midwifery’) which would see me become a holistic and spiritual companion to people at the end of life. I also have great invested interest in both the personal and political angles of caring and care work; what I would consider to be one of the most important, most essential roles in health and social care, and yet worryingly undervalued and unappreciated. I’m curious to explore whether embodied creative practices such as drawing could have an impact on this trend, and if the burden of care for these front line carers could be better understood and attended to using creative methodologies.
In bringing my newly defined practice to your attention, I hope to realise a number of things. There is always inherent value in acknowledging unique and radical activity within multi-disciplinary fields as it challenges the conventions of research and practice ‘norms’. It is also very much a call for interest from scholars, researchers and creatives alike who work with or are attracted to areas of theory and practice concerning death, dying and bereavement, palliative and end of life care. Do you have ambitions to work interdisciplinarily with creative research methodologies? Do you feel your research would be of value to me at this stage of my journey? I welcome all communications and expressions of interest.
An invitation. To awaken, observe, visualise, feel, contemplate, reflect upon and challenge our human fabric: body and mind, flesh and blood, bricks and mortar, air-fire-earth-water.
It’s not just the death thing. It’s the love thing. Carpe Diem.
Rachael Allen is a visual artist and carer in Newcastle Upon Tyne. Journeying through the fields of anatomy, human sciences, pathology, medicine, and more recently healthcare, the artist adopts drawing in its most embodied sense; not just an act for our oculus but a wholly sensorial process, a conduit between emotion and experience. Consolidating her time spent as Artist in Residence in university anatomy laboratories researching anatomical material to explore the dead body, and implications of embodiment, health, illness and pain in the living body, Allen has achieved her life-long goal to become a palliative, end of life carer; an occupational decision and life calling to care for terminally ill and dying individuals, whilst embedding her artistic interest in the physiological, cognitive, emotional and spiritual aspects of death, dying and bereavement, and related societal and cultural issues relating to care giving.
Image: (Detail) Unclassified (BMJ 2007-2011), pencil on paper. © Rachael Allen