SALEM — The new Jacob Lawrence exhibit at Peabody Essex Museum depicts the earliest decades of struggles connected to life in a growing America, with works covering the American Revolution, the empire of slave trade that ran before and after it, and more.

It's the kind of presentation that nurses at North Shore Medical Center can glean a lot from in how they administer hospital care today. 

Standing in front of nine nurses, museum program manager Ellen Soares pointed to a work depicting oxen struggling to cross a body of water on the Oregon Trail. The image, with sharp lines and colors that catch the eye, offers a traumatic perspective on activity that would eventually give rise to the union of states that exists today.

"These lines and the colors he chose elicit emotions," Soares said. "Are there any connections to nursing here?"

Delaney McDaniel, a registered nurse, offered her take.

"We talked about how, for a lot of patients, we have to create that sense of hope and give them that goal (toward recovery)," McDaniel said. "And it may not be easy to get to that goal, but we have to paint that picture for them — and that's kind of what the westward expansion was like. Everyone had a picture of what it looked like, but nobody knew how hard it was or what it looked like to get there."

Registered nurse Sandy Laing said the work represents "the visual display of purpose."

"We don't just do it for a paycheck," Laing said. "We assess a patient moment by moment, and we're using all those observation skills. This sort of just hones them in a little more — and not just to look at the first impression, but to really look."

The nurses were at Peabody Essex on Friday morning for the Paint to Patient program, which takes students in the hospital's graduate nurse program to the museum for exercises that enhance critical thinking and communication skills. The program is tailored to introduce a sector of the community to art when they otherwise might not hit museums or lean on art for lessons in life.

“In the medical field, it’s especially important to keep an open mind and to look at patient cases as a puzzle — you need to see the big picture but in order to do so you can’t ignore the individual pieces of the puzzle,” said Katie Rathbun, manager of NSMC’s Center for Professional Development, who coordinates the Paint to Patient program. “Our goal through this program is to give employees a well-rounded hands-on experience that challenges them to think outside the box and creates a deeper connection with the community and our patients served.”

Lynda Hartigan, the museum's deputy director, said the timing of the Jacob Lawrence exhibit, during the school year, was deliberate.

"We've also given our staff a good measure of cultural sensitivity training so, as people come from different experiences in life who might not ordinarily come to a museum, we know how to embrace them with respect and appreciation," Hartigan said. 

The tour Friday began at portraits of Massachusetts businessman Timothy Fitch and wife Eunice Brown Fitch, who lived during the 1700s. The nurses were asked to describe what they saw and how the works depicted the two. Words like opulence and comfort came to mind. 

"We came to a lot of conclusions about who they are, just based on what we saw," Soares said to the nurses, then pointing to Timothy Fitch. "One of the things he traded in was people. He sent ships to the west coast of Africa to bring people back to Boston."

The conversation then led to the hidden stories that define the people going to the hospital for medical care. 

"When you initially go into a patient's room, you can look at them and assess them," McDaniel said. "But you never know the patient until you talk to them and know them."

"And I've asked other groups too, 'How do you deal with a patient who is repugnant?'" Soares said. "Because your job as nurses is to take care of them. We're all human beings."

Speaking after the tour, McDaniel said the artwork "opens up the door to look at nursing in an artistic way, to have that perspective and to interpret nursing as an art form and a skill."

"It helps us practice our skill of observation in a way that we don't often get to practice," added Laing. "We don't get to see people for anything other than people — but we can look at a picture and test our skills even better."

And that, Soares said, speaks to the power of art. 

"They did a really interesting job seeing how Lawrence was expressing the struggle, but also hope — which I've never had a chance to talk to Jacob Lawrence about, but it seemed like that was what he was trying to present," she said. "It's a struggle, an ongoing struggle, but in the ideal world, there's a light at the end of the tunnel."

Dustin Luca may be contacted at 978-338-2523 or Follow him on Facebook at or on Twitter @DustinLucaSN.

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