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UC Davis Health System

UC Davis Health System

Artwork reflects cultural diversity of UC Davis medical students

Posted Aug. 20, 2008

In a tribute to the diversity of its students and the richness of their daily lives, the UC Davis School of Medicine has turned an ordinary hallway into an evocative photo gallery, mounting 10 portraits of aspiring doctors on a wall of the Medical Education Building.

The black and white photographs are the work of noted Sacramento photographer Kurt Edward Fishback, in perhaps best known for his portraits of other photographers and artists.

Formally unveiled at a ceremony in May, the permanent exhibit was sparked by Jesse Joad, the medical school’s associate dean for diversity and faculty life. Joad said the art that originally hung in the building’s busy second floor hallway — mostly abstract works and landscapes — was attractive but said nothing about the medical student experience.

Instead, Joad envisioned artwork that created a welcoming environment for students from all of California’s cultural communities and signaled UC Davis’ commitment to diversity in its enrollment and workforce.

"I felt we needed art that communicated our goal of having a medical school and health system representative of all people in the community," Joad said.

Other officials quickly voiced support for the concept, and Susan Willoughby, art adviser for the UC Davis Health System, suggested a photo exhibit. Fortunately, Fishback was available — and interested.

"Kurt has a national reputation and has work in the Crocker Art Museum collection and in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art," Willoughby said. "We’re very lucky that he’s in town and agreed to take on this assignment."

"Although UC Davis is first and foremost a place of education — the university also encourages us to maintain social and family commitments outside of the classroom, and recognizes the importance of these connections and interests to our future development as well-rounded physicians"
— Anthony Bhe, third-year medical student

The next step was determining what range of settings would best accent the portraits — and tell an accurate story about the myriad facets of student life. Joad decided to check with the students.

In a mailed survey, students were asked to select five out of 14 possible scenes that they believed best represented the life of a UC Davis medical student, or to suggest other settings. The possible choices ranged from the research laboratory to the library, a student-run clinic, the hospital, a lecture hall, bicycling to class or a family environment.

After the backdrops were set, Joad and other officials then selected 10 students to sit for the portraits. One of them, Anthony Bhe, was pictured in the Paul Hom Clinic, a free, student-run clinic that targets Vietnamese patients. Bhe, 29, was happy to pose for the exhibit, and applauded the medical school for investing $5,000 to make it happen.

"I think it reflects not just the university's commitment to diversity, but also to a humanistic approach to medical education," Bhe said. "Although UC Davis is first and foremost a place of education — the university also encourages us to maintain social and family commitments outside of the classroom and recognizes the importance of these connections and interests to our future development as well-rounded physicians."

For Fishback, whose past subjects include Ansel Adams and former Gov. Jerry Brown, now California’s attorney general, the photo shoot was a memorable one. He described the students as "extremely cooperative and wonderful to work with" and was touched by some encounters, including the time he spent with Bhe at the Paul Hom Clinic.

"Their commitment to what they are doing is so clear — whether it’s finding a cure for cancer or serving these patients who speak only Vietnamese and could not afford care if not for the clinic," Fishback said. "To be around that kind of healing energy was incredible."

In addition to Bhe, other students in the portraits are Miriam Abaunza, Manuel Tapia, Ekama Onofiok, Calvin Kuo, Donna DeFreitas, Nyonnoweh Greene, Roxanne Aga, Michelle Pham and Gabriel Mannis.

Once the new building adjacent to the Medical Education Building is completed, the photographs will be moved to their permanent home — a corridor connecting the two structures.

Meanwhile, Willoughby and others are searching for additional sites on campus to install even more art with special messages.