In a typical session, Art on the Brain participants view and talk about different artworks in the Wexner Center for the Arts and its meanings. Credit: Courtesy of the Wexner Center for the Arts

Five years ago, when an unnamed 19-year-old man was looking at a painting in the Wexner Center for the Arts, he began by doing what the other participants in the Art on the Brain program were supposed to do: He analyzed the work, talking with his peers about how the artist could be dealing with addiction issues.

But when he began opening up to the group about his own addiction for the very first time, Tracie McCambridge said that’s when she knew the program was more than the eye could see.

Art on the Brain is an eight-week program where McCambridge, manager of gallery, teaching and engagement at the Wexner Center, works with individuals who have experienced physical  or mental trauma in the arts center galleries to discuss certain pieces, as well as allowing participants the opportunity to share their own personal stories.

“It’s really about unpacking the stories that the artists are trying to tell,” McCambridge said. “Oftentimes what happens is participants’ own stories find their way in and they end up really sharing as a group not only their thoughts about the work, but details about themselves, and they start to form this really kind of close community.”

Some of these stories included a participant sharing his MRI results and another telling the group she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a disease that disables the nervous system.

The idea for the program began in 2013 when McCambridge asked herself who would benefit from the slowed-down environment an art gallery provides, as well as the critical thinking aspect. She then thought of patients who had been affected by physical or mental trauma.

She pitched the idea to a group of doctors at the Wexner Medical Center, who immediately expressed their support and began sending patients her way to pilot the program.

“It went really well,” McCambridge said. “It was really just me looking at what is happening already kind of in the gallery space and considering a way we can just expand our audience and expand what’s possible.”

While McCambridge said each session is different and its content depends on the group, she said participants will gather and check in with each other first, reintroducing themselves. McCambridge then asks them “a silly check-in” question, such as “If you could have any superpower [what would it be]?” or “What is your most fabulous, ideal Halloween costume?”

After, McCambridge brings the participants in front of different artwork — sometimes just two different pieces — and asks them what they see. Some weeks, there might also be a string quartet or a contemporary dance performance.

“The reason I start with such a basic question is that I don’t know what everyone is seeing, truly,” McCambridge said. “Together, we kind of create the meaning in the piece based on what we see as a group.”

Despite the intensity of the program, McCambridge said she’s really enjoyed working with the participants.

“It’s so wonderful to be able to build a bridge to a wonderful place like the Wexner Center where possibly they wouldn’t have been able to see themselves going very often with a program like this,” McCambridge said.

Ava Morgan, McCambridge’s intern and a third-year Ph.D. student in arts administration, education and policy, said helping out with the program has taught her how human connections are made, specifically in an artistic setting.

Morgan said not only did she see people slowly begin to trust and open up to each other, but she also found herself doing the same with them.

“I really come to life in the group, I find myself really intrigued with the work in a new way, or I just feel more comfortable expressing how I’m viewing something,” Morgan said. “I don’t think I fully had that before I started participating in these programs and working with Tracie.”

Morgan said the moments that move her most are the smaller ones, such as participants remembering what others in the group had said in a previous week.

“It’s those moments that I feel like kind of cue us in to how the program is sustained in people’s memories, in the way they’re living their life even when they’re not with us in the gallery, that I get really emotional or I understand that we are doing something that is having an effect,” Morgan said.

McCambridge said she hopes Art on the Brain can create possibilities for expanding similar  programs into different groups, such as Vets at the Wex — another program led by McCambridge.

“I look at it as a program that is just radically inclusive of members in our community that also need a place to go,” McCambridge said. “We serve all kinds of different audiences … I’m just offering a program that is suited to another rather large audience that is out there in a community.”