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Art, empathy converge in UW-Eau Claire photography projects

| Gary Johnson

Photo caption: This photo project by students Megan Troia, Kendall McGinnis and Kole Kolinsky is part of a Haas Fine Arts Center display on “Imaging Empathy: Photo Tableaux” that runs through Oct. 31.

A photography project that began this spring with a Mayo Clinic Health System presentation on the science of empathy evolved into an exercise in humanity for University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire students and their instructor.

The project, “Imaging Empathy: Photo Tableaux,” is on display on the first floor of Haas Fine Arts Center through Oct. 31.

Jyl Kelley, professor of photography in the department of art & design, created an intermediate-level photography class assignment, asking her students to work with Mayo Clinic Health System professionals.

The Mayo Clinic Health System participants shared with students their expertise on the topic of empathy in working with patients and paired up with students who spent a day in their shoes. Kelley’s students used that knowledge to integrate intimate images into visual presentations.

Students were expected to learn how to stage photographs similar to painting a canvas, Kelley says, but they discovered much more.

“I think the most important things that were learned came via the direct connections between people sharing their profoundly intimate and extraordinary stories about both questioning and understanding life and death,” Kelley says.

Class participant Katie Mattis, who graduated in May 2020 with a bachelor of fine arts degree in ceramics, collaborated with a nurse who cares for people in hospice, making their final six months of life as pain-free and comfortable as possible. Mattis, a Hudson native, called the project an eye-opening experience that provided moments she always will treasure.

“Seeing the empathy that the nurse provided for his patients was moving and heartwarming, knowing that even in our last days there will always be someone to care for us,” Mattis says. 

The idea for the project came after Dr. Patricia Kleine, UW-Eau Claire provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs, invited faculty in the humanities to work on collaborative projects with Mayo Clinic Health System. Kelley knew the genre of tableaux-style photography would allow students to build strong visuals dealing with empathy from what they had witnessed without compromising individual patients’ privacy and identity.

In her photograph, Mattis wanted to shine light on the nurse and patient, showing the positivity and trust in their bond. She also included a shadow figure.

“The shadow figure was to represent the looming death of the patient, but neither patient nor nurse is afraid of it or even paying it any attention,” Mattis says. “This is the scene that struck me during my day of shadowing that nurse — that both patient and nurse knew what the outcome would be, but it did not impede on their bond in any way.”

The assignment was meaningful to senior Kyler Lueck, a graphic communications major from Germantown, because it showed the importance of finding empathy in every situation so people learn from each other.

“Not only did this project give us the chance to share incredible stories, but it helped us learn the importance of listening,” Lueck says. “I believe listening is key when it comes to empathizing with other people.”

Lueck listened to a physician relay his experiences with a family in a critical care unit who had been involved in a holiday-season fatal automobile crash. The doctor had to tell people that their family member had died during the Christmas season.

“My photo portrays the hardworking doctors and nurses who sacrifice so much to help those in need even on holidays where we naturally expect people to be happy when, in reality, that isn't always the case,” Lueck says. “His story was a story of empathy for the doctors and nurses who sacrifice so much.”

As class instructor, Kelley also participated in the project, teaming with a Mayo Clinic Health System chaplain in the cancer center to meet a farmer who was undergoing chemotherapy. Kelley, who says she isn’t particularly religious, ended up praying with the patient at his request after discussions of farming, family and the weather.

“There were no filters or separation between us here, there was nothing for he or I to hide from one another, not even that he was going to die soon, not even the tears that came feely to all of us,” Kelley says. “That moment was one of the most sincere moments that I have ever experienced; I am grateful for having it and I will never forget it.”

Kelley can see how easily the theme of empathy can extend to other areas of the humanities through writing, theater, music, dance and other areas.

“If enough attention is brought to how to maneuver through life-changing events with empathy, more people will understand what brings us together rather than what tears us apart,” Kelley says.