By Ron Wagner
Mary Gwyn Bowen, the painter, could be a story. So, too, could Mary Gwyn Bowen the nurse, Mary Gwyn Bowen the student, or Mary Gwyn Bowen the educator. But none of them alone would reflect the person underneath all those hats as well as a single story about the way the longtime Watkins Community Education instructor managed to combine all of her passions at once a few years ago.
Years as a healthcare professional had shown Bowen that a surprising number of her peers were also artists on the side, and that gave her an idea while working on her master’s degree in art education at the University of Florida: Would cardiac patients benefit from doctors and nurses integrating that skillset into their care?
“The No. 1 issue for heart patients after surgery is getting up and walking. It’s painful, but to get well they have to. And it’s hard for the nurses to motivate them,” Bowen says. “We looked at how art could help that process, and what we ended up doing was bringing together all these artists who work at the hospital. We got them to make art, and we put the art on the walls where the patients had to walk (to see it) after surgery to see if it would give them a motivating factor.”
Color them motivated. Results at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, which collaborated on “Art to Heart,” suggested patients in wings featuring staff art moved more than those in wings with no art or impersonal paintings and pictures. “It gave them a reason to get up out of the bed and deal with the pain so they could go see what art their doctor had made or the nurse or somebody else involved in their care,” Bowen says.
The study was published in MEDSURG Nursing, a journal of the Society of Medical Surgical Nurses, but the research wasn’t limited to art’s effects on post-operative cardiovascular surgery patients. Bowen also found the art benefitted the staff in the unit where the art was displayed.
After graduating, Bowen began a workshop at Watkins specifically focused on creating art for sick people and started Healthcare Artists Together, a non-profit dedicated to helping artists bring their work into the healthcare environment. Through Healthcare Artists Together, Bowen and Carla Beals, who took Bowen’s workshop at Watkins, came up with the idea to create a comic book that would encourage patients to do a better job taking their medication. It was illustrated by Vanderbilt Professor of Medicine André Churchwell, M.D., and printed over the summer before going into the testing phase.
“We thought maybe if we could do a comic book it would make the health information more entertaining and maybe help patients understand why they need to take a certain medication,” Bowen says. “They do lots of things for children, but people don’t realize adults respond to things like that, too.”
Another thing people often don’t realize is they can, and should, incorporate the arts more as a daily practice in their lives. Bowen teaches classes at Watkins in order to enable those habits. Classes with compelling titles, too: Botanical Watercolor, Nature Journaling, Watercolor Bird Painting. The same wonder and happiness in her voice when Bowen speaks of art inspiring heart patients to walk makes another appearance when describing students come alive by applying themselves to an art form or a craft.
“It’s so much fun to see people have that lightbulb go on,” she says.
The same lightbulb went on for Bowen when she was eight years old, in the west Tennessee country around Dyersburg. Her father signed her up for an oil-painting class, and as cliché as it sounds the rest was history. “It was me and the senior citizens,” she remembers with a laugh. “It was the most wonderful experience. It was like this world opened up.”
Bowen was immediately drawn, no pun intended, to the life around her. “I grew up in a family of gardeners and people who like to be outdoors, so I learned young to love nature,” she says. “Just the beauty and colors and drama, and it’s just a natural evolving from that.”
Dyserburg is near Reelfoot Lake, which was formed by the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811 and 1812. They were the most powerful to hit the United States east of the Rocky Mountains in recorded history, and that violent past healing decades later with teeming new life fascinated Bowen. She was also inspired by her grandmother’s flowers and her aunt’s love of birds, which are reflected in her oil paintings that often depict life in her own gardens.“I think it’s the only medium where you can get that rich texture and that rich vibrancy,” she says of oil painting. “The way the colors mix, but you never actually lose the underlying color—it creates a lot of dramatic energy.”
Bowen retired from nursing earlier this year, and one of the rewards is an overdue focus on her own art. That’s appreciated, with one caveat.
“With all of the other things going on, I didn’t have time to really develop the art in the directions that I wanted to go in, so now I’m able to do that. It’s only been a couple of months (since retirement), but it feels really good. I’ve gotten a lot of painting done,” Bowen says. “I have to go into my own quiet space for my own painting, but I wouldn’t want to stay there all the time because I do like people. I think that I’m probably half-introvert.” It is, however, a half she’s determined to nourish.