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The Power of Images: Helping Others Through Art and Research

A digital illustration by Eli Smith of three black and white figures in blue scrubs

This spring, Penn Medicine launched a social media series that featured artwork by local and national artists, depicting images and inspiring messages to express support and gratitude for health care workers. One of the local artists has a special connection to the series, as he’s worked at Penn Medicine for more than 10 years. Eli Smith, a fundus photograph grader for the Center for Preventive Ophthalmology and Biostatistics in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, is also an artist who works with oil paints. As an artist and grader, his goal is to help others — emotionally connecting with people through his artwork, and contributing to research that improves patient care.

Creative Connections

An oil painting by Eli Smith of a man looking tense with black and white figures emerging behind him

As a child, Smith remembers always sketching with his pencils and pens, eventually moving into larger, more elaborate pieces with oil paint as an Art major in college. His love of art developed from his experiences growing up with Tourette’s and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

In his oil painting titled “TS sit stILL,” viewers can see a man standing firmly in a white space, fixated on something that cannot be seen by the viewer. He’s clenching his fists and jaw, and his shoulders are tensed. Surrounding him are black and white figures emerging from his body with distressed expressions, their hands reaching out, trying to escape.

“With Tourette’s, you may have uncontrollable motor and verbal tics, and it can be frustrating not having that control over your body,” said Smith. “I started to make art pieces that visualize these frustrations as a way to relate with others. There is something powerful and deeply healing about being able to feel like other people know and understand what you are going through. I hope my art brings a sense of healing for others too.”

Sculptural Influence for Social Series

While creating his artwork, Smith uses sculptures and statues as inspiration for capturing movement and emotion in his pieces. He’s particularly interested in the work of French sculptor Auguste Rodin, who is most well-known for “The Thinker.”

These sculpture-like images can be seen in his digital illustration for Penn’s #phillyheARTsyou series. The black and white etchings of individuals resemble the marble figures Rodin would sculpt. They are seen stretching their arms and shifting their bodies to put on bright blue scrubs, masks, and gloves, positioned in front of bold, pink text saying “ANY HOUR.”

“Working in a hospital is difficult, especially these past two years with COVID-19. To get up and go to work in a pandemic takes a lot of courage,” said Smith. “I wanted to connect with my colleagues and show them that we understand the sacrifices they make and the challenges they face every day in health care.”

Finding Data Through Details

Eli Smith
Eli Smith

When viewers look at Smith’s artwork, they can point out details that indicate certain emotions, observing tension in a figure’s body or a worrisome look in a figure’s eyes. Similarly, as a fundus photograph grader, Smith examines details of photographs to identify medical conditions in Ophthalmology patients. He receives photos or videos of patients’ retinas — a large, orange circle with a small bright spot representing the optic nerve, surrounded by thin branch-like lines extending from the optic nerve’s center — and reviews them for any characteristics that may suggest an eye condition or disease.

His findings are then entered into a database for biostatisticians to analyze and report for research papers. Past studies he’s been involved in have focused on age-related macular degeneration (deterioration of the retina that can blur central vision) and dry eye treatment.

“Although it may seem trivial, looking at images of the insides of people’s eyes, I know that in the long run the things we find will improve medical care for patients,” said Smith. “I think we all want our lives to matter, and my art and job are a few ways in which I am trying to matter and help others.”

To see more of Smith’s artwork, go to his website or visit 3rd Street Gallery to see Smith’s and other local artists’ collections.

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