If you frequent art exhibits in Cincinnati, you are likely to have crossed paths with Mary Heider. Currently an independent curator, with recent exhibits “A Clean Edge” at Brazee St. Studio’s C-Link Gallery in Oakley and “With and Without: Challenges” at the Carnegie Art Center in Covington, Heider built her career at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. While her official role at UC was as an assistant dean of Medical Education, her passion was connecting colleagues and students with the visual arts.  Seeing an opportunity for medical students to learn from art, she developed an elective course called “Art and Medicine”. In 2009, she began curating artwork for the College of Medicine study rooms. That year, she also curated “Form from Form: Art from Discovery”, a Darwin-themed exhibition that was shown at the University of Cincinnati and the Cincinnati Museum Center.

Although retired, she continues to work with administration to place artwork throughout the College of Medicine. An avid art collector herself, Heider is active in connecting audiences with art and helping artists promote their work through regional curatorial endeavors as well as her ongoing gallery project with the 506 Ash Studio Group in Elsmere, KY.

The following text has been edited from a recent interview with Heider.


Susan Byrnes: What inspired you to begin connecting medicine with the arts?

Mary Heider: As I came to learn the curriculum of the medical sciences, and as I looked at art, I would see artists using materials from other disciplines and creating with them in an artistic way. I wished I could bring medical students to see these exhibits. People were taking students to museums to look at art because it helps them with the physical diagnosis process where you observe, describe, and interpret.  Ok, those are important for physical diagnosis. But I would listen to people talk about art in a very disparaging way because they didn’t like it: it was distressing, it wasn’t pretty, it was hard to look at, harsh, or ugly. When I went to the Shriners burn unit, actually meeting some of the burn patients, I kept thinking that seeing things that are distressing in art really helps you see things in life, things that are hard to deal with. One of the things that artists can provide is a template, so that when you see somebody who is badly disfigured, you’re not afraid, you know that there’s a person, and you just have to explore and get to that person, and not shut him or her out. I saw the reciprocity there between art and difficult things in medicine.

SB: What impact did you see as a result of this class?

MH: It helped the students expand their interest and gave them something to think about, it gave some faculty and staff support in terms of their interest in art, and it also gave me a little bit of credibility in terms of my future efforts to bring art into student spaces in the medical school.  That’s what I’ve been doing since I retired. I’ve been curating art in student study spaces, for a patient simulation center, and conference room areas and lobby areas. Also, Family Medicine will be using work from Visionaries and Voices in conference rooms. My interest has gone beyond the students in having an impact, to the medical center and administration. I’m going to help them put art in a facility that is basically used 24 hours a day, where its really important to have a place you can go that gives you some relief, some beauty, and something to think about. This is what art provides.

One of the benefits of the art and medicine elective is that by looking at art as an avocation, there’s a link; you bring that to your profession.  It stimulates creativity, whether it’s using different materials or developing new materials. Often, when you leave your work and go do something else, that’s when the creative ideas come. That was one of the reasons it was important to do the art and medicine elective; it might lead somebody to see something different in medicine, develop something new, and really help patients long-term.

By putting art in other (non-gallery) areas, I’m providing art for the whole range of people there. I like the fact that anybody can come and look at this art. I feel like you work little by little in helping people to reach art and enjoy art, and eventually, art becomes part of their lives. And eventually they buy something. That’s always my goal. I really want to have people bring art to their homes, bring art into their lives. Once you buy something, you feel comfortable. You come to like it and you say, “Oh, this was a good thing in my life.” And you start looking at art. That’s how you learn. You build. That’s one of the things I like most about what I’m doing.

SB: Your academic background is in speech/communication and theatre. What sparked your interest in the visual arts?

MH: Both of those are visual. Theatre is obviously visual. I learned a lot about the principles and concepts behind making something visually interesting and exciting, using lighting, stage design, costuming. Speaking is different because it involves the person and how you present yourself, how you come across. You learn about what is effective in terms of getting your ideas across to an audience. One of the things I’ve found as I’ve been curating, I always start with thinking about my audience. I’m always tuned into that; where is the audience, what will the audience like? When they enter the gallery, what’s going to draw them in, what’s going to be exciting, what’s going to intrigue them, and how are they going to experience it?

Also, I call myself a behavioral scientist and I’m interested in people and differences in personality. I find it interesting to get to know different artists and come to know the differences in their personalities. I’m always looking at what artists might need in terms of who they are, and what I can do to help them get their work out and be successful.

SB: When did you start working with the 506 Ash Studio Group?

MH: The project started in 2013.  All of us (506 Ash Group members) are interested in artists, collect art and have wanted to support artists. We all know how hard it is to be an artist. You’re on your own and it’s a tough world, a tough life. I don’t think enough people realize what its like to be an artist, and how competitive it is. We thought 506 Ash would be a space where we could have shows with artists, they could sell their work, and it would help them. It’s a way that we, as a group, have been able to support artists.

SB: From a curatorial perspective, what are your current interests in the arts?

MH: I don’t have a goal or a vision. I just do what seems to be of interest to me, sometimes there’s a need, sometimes there’s a challenge.  My audience is somebody who doesn’t have art and needs art, meaning somebody whose house or office could use art. That’s what I’m always looking for, somebody who hasn’t made the first step, and I can help make the first step. I like to make connections.

–Susan Byrnes


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