On a recent trip to the Whitney Museum of American Art, in New York City’s Meatpacking District, Dana spent an evening viewing the 20th-century paintings and sculpture spread over multiple floors and outdoor terraces. But amid the works of some of America’s most innovative artists, Dana was suddenly captivated by another visitor, a man with an image of Vermeer’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring” on his tote bag. She took out her iPhone and snapped a shot of the visitor from behind, his bag in view, gazing at another piece of artwork.
A few weeks later, on a Thursday, at 2 p.m., Dana was at the Payne Whitney Clinic at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, sitting in a dark room with about 15 other people for a weekly group called The Art of Seeing. During this one-hour session, the group views assorted photographs on a screen — some from famous photographers or, depending on the week, from classmates — and talk about what they see, and how it makes them feel.
While the atmosphere is more like a college class and attendance is voluntary, the participants are enrolled in the hospital’s Continuing Day Treatment Program (CDTP), a five-day a week outpatient program that provides individual and group counseling, psychopharmacology treatment, and a range of therapeutic interventions for people suffering from mental illness. Some are there because of a sudden bout of depression; others have spent time in hospitals for more chronic mental illness and are trying to transition back to daily life.
Paul Davies, a 66-year-old working photographer who designed and runs as a volunteer The Art of Seeing group, was once one of these patients, while being treated for depression for six months in 2012. “We talk, look, and listen about what we see on the screen — about why a particular photographic image attracts our attention or is beautiful,” says Davies in his gentle Welsh brogue.
“The CDTP has numerous examples of former patients like Paul who come back to contribute to the community,” says Dr. Jason Kim, assistant attending psychiatrist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center and assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medicine. “They are the true heroes. They demonstrate that one can achieve mastery over mental illness and not just survive, but thrive.”
The goal of The Art of Seeing, Davies explains, is not to become a better photographer, though this inevitably happens during the nine months on average that people spend in CDTP. It’s about helping patients who are often isolated to begin to re-engage with the world, and see its beauty.