Next to the waiting room entrance in Duke Hospital, there’s a glass case, filled with swirls of color on canvas that contrast with the sterile, white walls of the rest of the building. “Imagined Places,” the small sign reads.
The exhibit that lives behind it is a series of landscapes by senior Kelsey Graywill. The paintings are peaceful, reflective and powerful. Graywill said she loves to explore people’s cognitive desires — such as fertility, safety and warmth — in her paintings. She wanted to create landscapes that carry meaning to other people, works that resonate.
“[It] is cool to hear from people that there’s something about the composition and the colors and the form of it that feels right to them or that feels welcoming to them,” Graywill said.
Despite Graywill’s current successes, her introduction to art did not go so well.
“In elementary school, I was in an art class,” Graywill said. “And it sucked.”
Graywill still vividly recalls one of the main projects in the class, a study on form and shadow where everyone painted the same close-up of berries on a stem. She said the teacher later told the class that one student’s painting was so good that one of the families wanted to buy the work. That was discouraging for Graywill. She thought that art might not be her “thing.”
Reflecting on this, Graywill said her experience is typical of art culture. Young students who can create art that closely mimics reality generally receive praise, and this demoralizes those who have artistic talent that doesn’t lie in photorealism.
Graywill never took formal art classes in high school, nor during her four years at Duke. She said art came more “organically” to her, as she drew portraits on her own time and later transitioned into paint. Now, her favorite medium is acrylic paint, though she does still like pencil and pastel.
The exhibit in the hospital has been a couple years in the making. Graywill originally applied to be part of the Arts & Health Exhibit Series her sophomore year. Since they typically showcase local Durham artists, Graywill knew it was “kind of a long shot,” but she applied because she felt that her work fit the theme. As an aspiring physician, having her art in a hospital would be a great opportunity.
“Especially for medicine, you need a little bit of science and a little bit of art to understand the human condition and to understand people,” Graywill said. “So [the exhibit is] special for me in that sense because it’s a way for me to represent that passion for arts in a space that normally doesn’t really invite the arts into it.”
Her works draw inspiration from a variety of sources — some spring from Graywill’s imagination, while others are grounded in actual places she has seen. One of the pieces in the showcase was inspired by a waterfall in Iceland.
Another draws from a cluster of trees Graywill saw on East Campus, near the Randolph and Southgate residence halls. This painting, though, doesn’t look much like the actual scene. Instead, it depicts a forest, with bright sunlight streaming through and creating long, deep shadows.
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“The way that light hits certain objects is something that sticks with me,” Graywill said. “And I pull that into my paintings later when I make them.”
Yet another painting’s inspiration comes from a trip to Nepal, one of Graywill’s favorite places. This work is clearly linked to Nepal, as it shows the prayer flags dotting the cityscape of Kathmandu. Graywill went to Nepal during high school through a global health experiential program with The Mountain Fund. At the time of her visit in 2012, she hadn’t started painting landscapes yet. She was much more into photography and drawing.
“I still have a lot of memories of those places,” Graywill said. “So [painting it] was a nice way to bring closure to the beauty that I saw there.”
She has another series of acrylic paintings that depict molecular structures involved in diseases. The idea for this series came when she started studying histology and pathology and saw images that she found interesting. Graywill wanted to represent these images in a more simplified manner and saw her art as a way to do that.
“A lot of the things that I do that are related to my aspirations in health have also come back around to art in some form,” Graywill said.
Next semester, Graywill plans to teach a house course on graphic medicine, the intersection of comics and health narratives. She has also launched a startup called Brainability, which creates coloring books for people with cognitive impairments. These activities will allow her to further explore the intersection of arts and medicine, using art to understand science and using science to improve art.