New exhibit takes Urban Arts Space visitors 'Behind the White Coat'

Painted photos by Ohio State med students Elizabeth Auckley and Phil Anjum are on display at the Downtown OSU gallery through May 7

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
This portrait of Ohio State medical student Brian Fowler is a collaboration between Phil Anjum, who took the black and white photo, and Elizabeth Auckley who added an oil paint wash to the canvas print.

Elizabeth Auckley’s early interest in science convinced her she wanted to become a doctor, but she also loved visual art. Auckley took painting classes in high school, and in college at Ohio State, she added an art history major while taking pre-med courses. It scratched the arts itch a bit, but she didn’t create anything herself during those undergrad years.  

Auckley remained at Ohio State for medical school, and it was there she discovered Humanism in Medicine, a student-led organization that recognizes the humanities as an essential part of medical practice studies.

“I think medicine is an art in itself, so having some kind of artistic background, it really becomes part of your medical practice,” said Auckley, a third-year student at OSU’s College of Medicine. “Thinking about medical education, it's such a jam-packed four years, and there's a lot to learn here. It's a very rigorous curriculum, so there's always the argument that if you're adding in humanities education, are you taking out some valuable science portion? 

“A lot of the 20th century medical education ideas about medicine removed the humanities aspect and just focused on diseases as an organ system, separating the personalization of disease. Now, we think that really was not the right way to do things. So the focus of the 21st century is moving medicine back to more of a balance — keeping the humanities side of personalization and deconstructing the hierarchy of the physician-patient relationship.” 

Through Humanism in Medicine, Auckley met Phillip Anjum, a fourth-year medical student, videographer and photographer. Anjum approached Auckley with a collaborative concept. “His idea was to take portraits of our classmates in a setting outside of medicine, showing how they like to spend their time, what they identify with as a person, not as a medical student,” said Auckley, who would then add paint to Anjum’s canvas-printed, black and white photos. "He wanted me to paint the color back in over the prints as a symbol of the personalization and the complexity of each person, really highlighting who they are outside of medicine.” 

From 2020 through March of 2022, Auckley and Anjum worked together on the project, and today (Tuesday, April 26), their collaboration debuts at OSU’s Urban Arts Space Downtown. Titled “Behind the White Coat,” the exhibition runs through May 7.

Anjum and Auckley wanted to use translucent layers of paint, a technique that usually calls for watercolor, which doesn’t work well on canvas. So instead, Auckley tried a new method of thinning oil paint to create a similar effect. “I ended up putting washes on each portrait in the style of watercolor, but with oil paint,” she said. “There's an old saying that your painting is only as good as the drawing. Painting is really my love; I'm OK at drawing, but it's not what I love to do. This project took away the drawing aspect. I was basically given a stencil — Phil's beautiful photographs.” 

The project also gave Auckley newfound confidence and a reignited fire for making art, even during medical school. “I really didn't think that I would come back to art [now]. I thought it probably would be later down the line when I have more time in my career or when I retired,” she said. “Having it in a gallery like this is unimaginable. … I'm glad I got some courage built up in me to do it.” 

Auckley also hopes the exhibition, and the ideas behind it, can benefit other students and the medical profession as a whole. “Physician burnout and stress — a lot of that arcs back to how your medical school experience was,” she said. “We hope that by showing these portraits, we can encourage people to live their lives as who they are and still enjoy their hobbies and their personal lives and families and friends, and realize that's a part of everyone's lives and not something that you have to hide.”