Better Health Through Art: An Interview with Lynn Crandall

For 20 years Lynn Crandall has been executive director of the USC Institute for Genetic Medicine Art Gallery, which seeks to create synergy between the disciplines of science and art to solve complex human problems. Her work involves bringing together thought leaders in art, science, medicine, and the social sciences to cross-pollinate ideas and spark new ways to address social issues. In recognition of her decades of contributions she received a Presidential Volunteer Lifetime Service Achievement Award, which was presented at the White House by President Obama. I have worked with Lynn on a number of exhibitions and forums at USC. She took time out of her busy schedule to talk with me about her work.

Dr. Murad: How did USC’s Institute for Genetic Medicine become home to an art gallery? What value does USC place in having an art gallery on its genetic medicine campus?

Crandall: The purpose of the USC Institute for Genetic Medicine Art Gallery is to demonstrate and explore the similar creative processes of artists and scientists in making the invisible visible.

Science approaches understanding the complex interdependencies of systems in the physical world with precise observation and predictive analytics. Art uses intuitive observation to reveal both inner and outer worlds. Showing how the two disciplines are similar encourages sharing and leveraging of scientific and human resources. It prompts artists and scientists to look at their work in new ways.

The gallery strives to bring together people from the public, private, nonprofit, faith-based, academic, and media sectors for open-minded, deliberative discussions on complex social issues. Often these interface with the creative process and findings of research in molecular biology, health and medicine, and larger social systems. For example, our opening exhibit featured works by artist Barbara Strasen, working in collaboration with our founder, geneticist Laurence Kedes, to illustrate how both art and science meld inspiration with often tedious and painstaking craftsmanship. A scientist thinks about a problem for hours on end and then, often while taking a break and relaxing the mind, has a sudden burst of insight. Conversely, an artist may have a flash of inspiration and then spend hours translating that vision through his or her chosen medium. Similarly, were all are often helped to see problems—or solutions—in a new way simply by looking at them through a different lens.

Dr. Murad: Please tell us a bit about some of the programs the art gallery has sponsored and how you see their role in healing.

Crandall: We’ve offered a wide range of exhibitions and symposia to address crucial topics that range from pollution to peace. Your own theory of health and aging caught our attention in 2013 while we were organizing the Aging People/Aging Planet exhibition in collaboration with the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology.

We’ve also featured your work in our Creating a Healthy Life exhibit, which encouraged viewers to look better by taking care of their skin; live better by eating a healthy, water-rich diet; and to feel better by managing stress through a youthful and creative approach to life.

One of our collaborators, Blair Franks, made a great little 30-minute documentary about our work, There Shall Be Physicians for the Spirit, which explains what we do and why.

Dr. Murad: Can you point to any solutions, initiatives, or even personal healings that have taken place as a result of the gallery’s work?

Crandall: There have been many! We’ve created exhibitions and events with departments and schools on both USC campuses, as well as with UCLA and other academic institution—from preschool through postdoctoral studies. For example, we helped to bring together the neuroscientists, musicians, artists, and educators who formed IQsonics’ Online Music-Based Program, which helps children overcome speech delay and other learning differences, including autism. Music often can reach neuro-divergent kids in ways that conventional learning methods can’t.

Our exhibition of your art was the catalyst for a symposium featuring you and Dr. Rishi Manchanda, author of The Upstream Doctors, about physicians who look “upstream” for the causes of our problems, rather than “downstream,” at the level of symptoms. Like you, Dr. Manchanda sees that health—and illness—begin in our everyday lives and how we live, work, eat, and play. Like you, he argues that our health often depends even more on our social and environmental settings than it does on cutting-edge medical care.

We have hosted many such forums, which bring together leaders in diverse disciplines to address our most pressing human problems. These forums help participants see and understand the world differently. They also model the value of respectful differences of opinion, which is the only way we’re going to develop solutions that work for everyone.

Dr. Murad: Yes, that was a great conversation with Dr. Manchanda—and I’m glad that it got a lot of media coverage. I understand you are also involved in a couple of programs involving veterans.

Crandall: Yes, we’ve worked with CalVet Home in West Los Angeles, and creatively with VetArt, offering daylong art workshops with artists and veterans. Like VetArt, we believe that art experiences can be tremendously therapeutic, helping veterans release trauma, express difficult emotions, forge new relationships, and smooth their adjustment to life outside the military. Making art in a community setting, in particular, helps veterans create new connections that come to reflect a new internal landscape, with new social, emotional, and even neurological connections that can lead to stability in relationships, employment, and housing. This is a great example of “upstream doctoring,” rather than simply medicating to treat the symptoms of veterans’ trauma or other health issues. We’re also proud to have exhibited a number of bronze sculptures created by vets in the VetArt program.

We’re currently working with VetArt to prepare for the Proven Participatory Arts Programs for Veterans and their Families at the 2020 Americans for the Arts convention in Washington, DC, in June 2020, and for the National Organization for Arts in Health (NOAH) international conference in September 2020.

It’s a slow process, but we’re steadily building awareness that health doesn’t come in a bottle. It’s a reflection of how we live our lives—physically, emotionally, and spiritually. The good news is that we don’t always need an expert to write a prescription for us; we can take charge of it ourselves.

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