Snapshot: John Graham-Pole

Our Snapshot article series features Q&As with key pioneers and innovators across the multidisciplinary and multi-dimensional arts and health field in Canada who are part of the Arts Health Network Canada community. 

Interview by: Zara Contractor

John is Professor Emeritus of Pediatrics, Oncology and Palliative Care, University of Florida. As well as a practitioner, teacher, and researcher. John is a prolific writer and has written/edited six books, and over 250 peer-reviewed research articles, book chapters, and poems in refereed journals. He was the co-founder of Arts in Medicine (AIM) and the Center for Arts Medicine at the University of Florida, and has been a board member for several national organizations, including the American Holistic Medical Association, Society for Arts in Healthcare (now Global Alliance for Arts & Health) and the National Association for Poetry Therapy. He is also a member of the Arts Health Network Canada, National Advisory Committee. 

We are pleased to share John’s insights on the importance of and hopes for arts & health in Canada:

1. Tell us a bit about yourself and how you are involved in arts and health?

I’m a retired physician who worked as a professor of pediatric oncology and palliative care at the University of Florida for 30 years. In 1991, I co-founded and co-directed what is now known as the Center for Arts Medicine (, believing that my chosen profession was as much an art as a science. I was also involved from very early in the Society for Arts in Healthcare (, now known as the Global Alliance for Arts & Health, as a member of its board of directors for six years. My own art form is primarily writing (poetry, essays, short stories, and now a novel), but I also love to act, sing, cook and garden. Most recently, I’m working with a group of people in my own community of Antigonish, Nova Scotia, on an initiative we call Arts Health Antigonish (AHA!), which is seeking to create a community-wide commitment to art as an essential component of our whole health, individual and communal.

2. What have been the major benefits of using creativity within your field of work?

Firstly, I have benefited immeasurably from naming art and art-making as essential to my own health – of body, mind and spirit. Today, I can scarcely imagine a life without having some kind of creative expression in it. Yet when I went as a premed student to St Bartholomew’s Hospital (Barts) Medical School in 1960, no one saw any connection between the twelve medical colleges that existed in London at that time and the countless art museums, theatres, and galleries in that city. (Even though we had had Hogarth’s “Jesus at the Pool of Bethesda” gracing our Founders Hall since 1723, which is all about the art of healing the sick).

Second, I always tried to bring art to the bedside of patients I served, and I believe that this artful approach helped me hugely in my focus and attention to detail. I’m delighted to see that many medical colleges are now incorporating visual, literary and performance arts in their curriculum to help teach their students to become better doctors. A recent article on the Forbes Magazine blog (of all places!) drew attention to the advantage that medical students have who have more “right brain” qualities – imagery, visual and literary skills – in today’s digital image-based world.

3. Can you tell us some more about some of the health outcomes you’ve seen as a result of the work you do?

This question begs stories, so here briefly are two of my favourites. One of our artists-in-residence, Ellie, would take her easel to the hospital Emergency waiting area and make portraits (those folks often waited hours, even days, to be triaged). A young man appeared in the early hours sweating and agitated, demanding an immediate fix – it looked like a case for security. Until Ellie started sketching him. Next thing, he was standing beside her easel admiring his portrait, and discovering he could get to keep it, he took off home to bed with it rolled under his arm. He never saw a triage nurse, let alone a doctor.

Second story: Cassandra was a 14-year-old patient of mine with sickle cell disease, which caused her frequent admissions for intravenous narcotics for her excruciating pain crises. Until she took up dancing to Beethoven symphonies. Now when she gets admitted for yet another pain crisis, she demands that we send for our resident dancer to dance with her, refusing any more narcotics because “it dopes me out and I can’t dance.” 

4. How do you see being part of the Arts Health Network Canada community benefiting you in helping you achieve your objectives?

I think that the current arts and health movement requires us to think globally and act locally. So all of us who are passionate about arts & health need to be involved in our local programs – and if we don’t have one, we need to create one! But we need always to be looking at the bigger picture – what is happening on a regional, a national, and a global scale. So we need to be in close touch with our larger community. Artists are a never-ending source of creative ideas for moving the world forward. We can learn from each other what works and what doesn’t work. Canada is a big country and it’s hard to meet each other in an actual physical environment, for example, a national conference or symposium. But we can do a vast amount today through digital media to make real-time connections, and this takes having a central organization that can orchestrate such linkages between us through our ever-expanding social media. Through facebook, blogs, skype, and the like, we can mentor each other, learning from each other’s failures and successes.

5. What are some of the challenges you’ve faced and continue dealing with in your work and how have you responded to those?

First, medicine’s mainstream has a hard time seeing art as having a major contribution to make to healing. Today’s gold standard is evidence-based medicine, by which is meant evidence derived from randomized controlled trials, because they use experimental and control groups, with a narrow focus that eliminates confounding influences and observer bias. Because of their training in the need for precise and tidy answers, physicians are uncomfortable with qualitative research methods that recognize that research participants bring their own socially constructed and culturally determined biases and positions (e.g., race, gender, class, religion, age, generation) to their meaning-making, so that “thick description” becomes art-based research’s gold standard. My answer has been to recognize that the arts-health movement is about artists, not physicians, working with patients, and that it isn’t essential to have my profession buy into it (we are a pretty conservative bunch after all). One thing I’ve found is that doctors rarely impede the work of healing artists; the worst thing that seems to happen is that they simply ignore it.

Second, money: I adhere firmly to the principle that artists should be paid for their work. We were fortunate in our US hospital where we started our art-and-health program to obtain a “line item” in the hospital’s budget. The reason, I’m sure, was because they saw it as giving them a competitive edge in what is largely a fee-for-service system. This is less likely to work in Canada. My partial answer has been to apply for all possibly relevant grants (ideally with someone who writes a lot of grants!), and more recently to look to local businesses for support. The recent Canada-wide artsVest is a very hopeful sign of businesses recognizing the importance of links between the arts and business communities.

6. What advice would you give the younger version of you who was just starting out your career?

I spent a great deal of time teaching medical and premedical students during my later career, but I always avoided formal curricular teaching and instead created my own extracurricular courses, limiting them to a small number of students. I had month-long courses on art and health, holistic medicine, and spiritual and philosophical aspects of health and healthcare. So I’d assume any newly fledged doctor was already interested in such things if they were seeking my advice! And I’d urge them to think of their chosen profession as at least as much art as science. I’d probably discourage them from an “academic” career working in a huge university medical centre, because it’s so hard to maintain autonomy in your work there. I hope and believe that the future of our arts-and-healing movement lies in our communities, rather than being confined largely to our hospitals. So I’d urge them to try to become part of a community-based multidisciplinary practice, where physicians, naturopaths, psychologists, artists and others work closely together, and all have full appreciation of the holistic aspects of care that promote healing of body, mind and spirit.

7. What do you love about the work you do?

I love being what is laughingly called retired, because I have just that freedom and time to do what I like which was so hard for me to find when I was being paid to work a 60-90-hour week. Art when applied to healing means to me, at its most central, being able to create an intimacy between us that blurs the boundaries between healer and healee. I crave close connection between human beings, and I think this is why I was at once drawn to art as a healing force, because art-making can teach us focus, intuition, compassion, and the essential recognition that we are all much more alike than we are different.

8. What do you think is needed to continue developing the connections between arts and health in Canada?

Well, I’ve said it already: Think globally, act locally. We live in a very large country and it’s hard for us all to be in direct physical contact with each other. So we need local programming all across the nation, ones that make direct connections between healing artists and people of all ages and ethnicities and abilities throughout our own communities. And then we need to keep making virtual connections with each other in our many separate communities through the many social media available to us. In this way we can teach and learn from each other, find out what works and what doesn’t work, applaud each other’s successes, and empathize with each other’s challenges.

Thanks for asking me these challenging yet intriguing questions!

(Read more of John's thoughts and insights in "Looking Back, Thinking Forward")