Oh, my aching (inspirational) back: Art at UCLA Medical School

"They told me I needed screws" by Ellen Cantor

Back pain is the unlikely inspiration for an art show—and it’s hanging in an unlikely venue: the lobby of a building at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. Photographer Ellen Cantor of Palos Verdes is featured in the show. She was inspired after being diagnosed with scoliosis. “I was going to different doctors and the doctors told me things I didn’t understand. In my mind, I created these little sculptures that said to me ‘this is what I think they’re telling me,'” she told me.

Cantor makes those sculptures out of fruits and vegetables and bolts and wires, photographs them and then enlarges the pictures to 20 by 30 inches. They look kind of like Pixar characters. Here’s how she describes a photo called They told me I needed screws: “It’s 2 stalks of celery, put together, those are supposed to be my spine, and I’ve taken screws, and screwed them in, tied them together with wires and rubber bands so they stay together that my spine doesn’t fall apart.”

The show is called “Back2Back”. Ted Meyer, the guest artist-in-residence at UCLA Medical School, conceived of and curated the exhibit. “We try to have the shows correspond with what the med students are studying that quarter,” he said. “This was ‘structural muscular quarter.’ I really wanted them to go ‘wow, look at what this person’s been through, and how does it seem.'”

Dr. Andrew Schwartz is an orthopedic surgeon who teaches at UCLA.  As he walked through the lobby gallery, he said this exhibit humanizes patients for his students. “By the second or third year they become scientists, more rote and robotic. How can we get them to communicate better with patients, to enhance the patient’s understanding? When the patient understands they do better, they heal better.”

UCLA is one of just a handful of medical schools in the country that has an artist-in residence program. Ted Meyer says weaving together humanities and science yields an important result: “There’s a lot of studies that show that if doctors study art, and look at art, their observational skills get better, their communication skills, their bedside manner gets better.”

The veteran Dr. Schwartz seemed to be inspired himself: “This makes me think this is a good thing to do, is ask them to draw something so they understand it when they go over it. It might be kind of cool.”
As for Ellen Cantor, she looks at her photographs a bit differently now. She had back surgery a little over a month ago and was walking a day later.
The exhibit is up until mid-May.


  1. Renee H.
    May 01, 2013, 6:41 pm

    Ellen, I'll miss you my friend... my dear, dear friend. RIP

  2. Alexandra Leach
    Apr 15, 2013, 3:25 pm

    I wonder how they would get inspiration from chiropractic care. I like the idea of the celery screwed together, though it made me feel more afraid of how doctors might do it on my back.

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  • Mikaela Lee

    There are a lot of alternative medicine that for some people is more effective than the conventional hospital treatment. Chiropractors in Sydney are in demand since according to the studies, aside from improving body alignment, it revitalizes the mind too. Oh well, you're already brimming with creativity but might as well try it, too. More power to you and your works!

  • AbbyPlew

    There's actually an online doctor prescription that was made available to everybody to be able to ease up the pain they are experiencing, having said that it means that people who are suffering from back aches or any body pain could easily get medications applicable to their concerns.

  • AndyEiger

    Therapist in urgent care glendale az said that there are specialized chairs for everyone, especially if that person is suffering from backache. Most of the time, he advises his patient to sit in chairs with back support cause it will really help them in their posture and will provide comfort for their spinal bones.

  • Kimmy J.

    The tempe urgent care is actually providing several tips on chair that could ease up back pain and to as much as possible avoid causing injuries to the body.

  • thanks for sharing i really like the post

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  • I wonder how they would get inspiration from chiropractic care. I like the idea of the celery screwed together, though it made me feel more afraid of how doctors might do it on my back.

  • Renee H.

    Ellen, I’ll miss you my friend… my dear, dear friend. RIP

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