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Palette Knives and EKGs: A Conversation with Arts Cardiologist Dr. Bryk-Serna

Heart & Lung Illustration from Gray's Anatomy or Anatomy: Descriptive and Surgical, 1858.

Picture this: It’s 3am. You’re in your studio. The paint is slinging, ideas are flowing freely–almost poetically. Then suddenly, you see the color start to drain from the surface of your piece. It falls to the floor, motionless with shallow breaths, clinging to life. What do you do? Frantically reach for the Cadmium Red and smear it on the canvas? Slap it on the face with the hope of shocking it back to life? You do everything short of grabbing an X-acto knife and tearing it open to see what’s happening underneath the surface. At these moments of panic, who do you call?

Lately, many Chicago artists have called on one woman to make it all better–Dr. Adrienne Bryk-Serna. As the world’s only arts cardiologist, Dr. Bryk-Serna has spent a substantial of her life studying what’s at the heart of creative practice and product. With a team that is on call around the clock, she has been a life-saving defibrillator for artists around the world. And she recently landed in Chicago. A couple weeks ago I sat down with the doctor to understand more about what she does, why she decided to settle in Chicago and to hear more about her recent quest to discover what’s at the heart of art in the Windy City.

I Heart Chicago, 2010. (Image Credit: Refashioned on Etsy.)

Tempestt Hazel: Why did you come to Chicago? You’ve said that you saw it as a perfect place to conduct your research. Can you speak more about that?

Dr. Adrienne Bryk-Serna: Definitely. Chicago is a very important piece to my research on what I believe will be a revolutionary concept. I want to map out the entire arts circulatory system of the city and uncover what is at the center of it. In other words, I want to see what is sustaining it all in a similar way to how our heart serves as the organ that keeps all of our other parts going. What are the chambers of this heArt (I like to refer to it with a capital ‘A’), where do they come from, what do they do exactly?

When asking these questions over the past decade in other cities, the answer is usually pretty straight-forward. For most arts circulatory systems, from Berlin to New York to Beijing and other similar locations, economic factors appear to be the central driver, the blood flow. In only a few countries and cities I’ve studied in has it been drastically different. One being London. Another is Vancouver. And also Peoria, Illinois has one of the most interesting art systems I’ve seen on a smaller scale–it’s just waiting to be discovered!

But the reason why I came to Chicago is because it seems to be at a really critical moment where things will change on all sides and all systems will be affected.

TH: What changes are you referring to and what are the causes of these changes you predict?

DABS: Mostly, I am referring to the trend of DIY activity in this city, the new shift in arts funding across the country and also development of this new Chicago Cultural Plan and the re-adjustments of the city’s cultural departments. Being here right now is definitely ideal for testing my different hypotheses. I have been following these activities closely in addition to finding ways to connect with and be submersed in Chicago’s various art spheres. All of the research and field work lends itself to my private practice.

The Business of Art/Non-Profit Art Practice Flow Chart, Liz Mogel, 2009. (Image Credit: The Artwork Publication.)

TH: What exactly is your private practice?

DABS: Well, every time I move to a new place for research I can guarantee there will be a critical mass of artists there who could benefit from my team’s unique services–emergency heArt surgery and artist rehabilitation.

TH: Surgeries? And rehabilitation? What kind?

DABS: The surgeries are of all kinds–usually on artwork. We get countless 911 calls from artists having conceptual and aesthetic emergencies in their studios such as an irregular rhythm of elements and colors or maybe a physical and/or emotional breakdown of an idea. The rehabilitation services, on the other hand, are long-term services offered often to artists, curators, theorists, arts administrators and all others who are showing signs of art abuse, or need some moral support for their art practice or involvement. We’ve saved many people from throwing in the towel and turning their backs on their careers through our patented process which took me over 15 years to develop.  With each artist we meet I have to reevaluate my approach because every artist is so different–it’s impossible to make a one-process-fits-all standard.

TH: Any particularly memorable 911 calls you can share with us?

DABS: Well, due to doctor-patient confidentiality, I can’t give specifics. But, just last fall as one of my nurses was walking into our clinic, she heard a strange sound coming from the alley right next to the building. When she went to investigate she discovered an unrecognizable pile of what appeared to be carefully crafted wooden pieces to a large-scale installation. We suspect that someone had knocked it around pretty badly, but had enough of a conscience to bring it to a hospital.

We immediately brought it to the ER. What we do is one part heArt surgery and one part cosmaesthetic surgery. In this instance, Untitled, as it came to be called, needed to first be brought back to life through the Ross Procedure (named after legendary painter, Bob Ross) and the magic worked by our installation specialists and arts cardiologists. Then it had to be reassembled by our cosmaesthetic surgeon. The result was amazing. Untitled is now on view at a gallery in the West Loop and is also scheduled to travel to Toronto later this year. The artist responsible has yet to come forward and claim it, but it all seems to have worked out for the best.

TH: For those interested in the work that you do–from the research to the rehabilitation–how can they find out more about it?

DABS: If you’re having an art emergency, we suggest you call the authorities. Tell them the nature of your problem and they will contact us. We have a direct line to all major hospitals in the city. As far as my other work is concerned, I will be wrapping up my research here in Chicago through 2012 to be published as a study, hopefully in late 2013. Otherwise, you can keep an eye out for my memoir, Palette Knives and EKGs: Tales of An Arts Cardiologist, coming out later this fall.

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