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Professional News
Artist Paints Her Dreams To Understand Her Mind
Psychiatric News
Volume 36 Number 13 page 6-40
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Sheila Hafter Gray, M.D. (left), president of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis, poses with artist May Lesser, shown with "Jacob Wrestled a Man." This painting is one in a series on Biblical themes displayed at the American Academy of Psychoanalysis’ annual meeting in New Orleans in May.

New Orleans artist May Lesser believes Freud’s early exposure to religion profoundly shaped the development of psychoanalysis. Talmudic scholars, she suggests, taught Freud to look for hidden meanings in every word and story.

The Hebrew scriptures Freud studied in his youth show real people, not deities, expressing love, hate, anger, fear, envy, lust—the entire range of human emotions. Moses dared to talk back to God, Lesser notes. Freud, too, challenged the prevailing assumptions of his time.

Lesser drew on the Hebrew scriptures to create a series of etchings and paintings that explore human strengths and frailties. Her works were exhibited at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis in New Orleans in May. One also captured a prize in APA’s annual meeting art exhibit. The Freud Museum in London will exhibit these and other works by Lesser in 2002.

"Jacob Wrestled a Man" (see photo) depicts the resolution of Jacob’s nightlong struggle with God and man. At daybreak, Jacob receives a blessing and a new name, Israel, signifying his role as a leader of his people. Jacob’s two wives, their handmaidens, and his children wait for him across the stream. The work is a dry-point engraving on copper, printed on rag paper and colored with egg tempera.

"This work portrays Jacob wrestling with himself and prevailing," Lesser said in an interview. "In so doing, he becomes stronger. He was blessed because he succeeded. I see this as a symbolic story," she added. "Maturation is painful, but worth the effort. I would subtitle it ‘permission to be free.’ We must give this permission to ourselves."

Other works in the series depict such stories as Solomon’s identification of a baby’s true mother, Jonah’s discovery of purpose in the belly of the whale, Samson’s seduction and loss of strength, and God’s promise of peace to Noah.

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Rich in symbolic imagery, Lesser’s scriptural series has much in common with the hundreds of paintings, drawings, and etchings she has made to record her own dreams over the past three decades. On awakening in the morning, she often goes directly to her studio.

"When I paint," she said, "it’s a little like being in a dream state. Because the language of dreams is pictoral, I gain more direct access to feelings in my dreams by recording dream images than by simply translating these images into words. This is in contrast to Freud, who focused on verbal reports of dreams."

The economy of a dream, Lesser said, is similar to that of a physics equation. She finds that her choices of shapes, sizes, colors, positions of objects, and other elements help her grasp the relationship between various aspects of a dream.

"Some seemingly small element may turn out to be quite prominent when I paint it," she said. "With a written description, I might not have seen that."

Lesser jots notes to help her decode the work later, but, she joked, she often can’t read her own handwriting or find the paper she wrote on, an indicator that dreams sometimes reveal secrets she’d prefer to keep from herself.

"The dream is the most creative process I know, other than creating a baby," she said. "Paying attention to one’s dreams can offer insight into how one’s mind works. It makes the invisible visible."

For many years, she kept her dream paintings private, but recently, she’s begun to exhibit some of them and to talk about her dream work, usually with groups of psychiatrists or students.

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Lesser is best known for her work depicting life in university medical centers. As a child, she loved to study the steel engravings in her physician father’s anatomy, obstetrics, and surgery books. She had had to pursue this interest in secret, as the books were deemed "unsuitable" for a young girl. After receiving her B.F.A. with honors in drawing in 1947 from Sophie Newcomb College, now part of Tulane University in New Orleans, she earned an M.A. in painting from the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, and did further graduate work in art at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA).

To learn more about human bone and muscle anatomy, she obtained permission in 1967 to attend anatomy lectures at the UCLA School of Medicine. Her work so impressed the faculty that they invited her to observe dissections of cadavers and to chronicle the progress of the Class of ’71 through medical school. She followed them to classrooms, clinics, laboratories, operating rooms, and bedsides, documenting interactions with patients, nurses, families, faculty, and each other. She eventually published her artwork, along with her observations and musings on the scenes she recorded, in The Art of Learning Medicine (Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1974).

"There is a loveliness in human beings helping one another," she wrote in the book’s introduction. "As they came to understand the art of medicine, I was learning the role of medicine in my art: I was becoming aware of the universal truths all around me in the hospital setting."

Lesser later followed some of the same students through their internship and residency training in Los Angeles. Over the years, she has observed caregivers, patients, and researchers in diverse settings, trying to capture participants’ feelings as well as clinical details. A second book documents her experiences as a resident artist at the Tulane University Medical Center, where she is a lecturer in the department of psychiatry. The book is titled An Artist in the University Medical Center (Tulane University Press, 1989). She is preparing an updated edition to reflect the impact of new technology on medical practice and teaching.

Her book for children undergoing radiation therapy for cancer will be published next year by Tulane. She hopes her drawings will make the procedures and machinery less frightening for both children and their parents. In 1998 she worked at the University of Cambridge, England, while on a Burroughs Wellcome Fund travel fellowship.

Her work is owned by museums around the world and has been exhibited at many medical institutions including the Clinical Center of the National Institutes of Health and the National Library of Medicine.

Lesser’s work has been featured on 10 JAMA covers. One of her paintings appeared on the cover of the American Journal of Psychiatry in April 1999.

Lesser’s husband, Leonard, a prominent New Orleans child psychiatrist, died last year. Three of their four children are physicians, one of whom, Lillian Lesser Niditch, M.D., is a child psychiatrist who practices in New Orleans.

Lesser’s medical art is posted on the following Web sites: www.tulane.edu/~lesser2/, http://lhc.nlm.nih.gov/M3W3/lesser/lesser_theartist.html, www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/lesser/lesser_1.html, and http://www.usc.edu/hsc/nml/artist_gallery/. More on Lesser’s thoughts about dream art and links to her pictorial records is posted at www.tulane.edu/~lesser2/preface.html.

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Sheila Hafter Gray, M.D. (left), president of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis, poses with artist May Lesser, shown with "Jacob Wrestled a Man." This painting is one in a series on Biblical themes displayed at the American Academy of Psychoanalysis’ annual meeting in New Orleans in May.

New Orleans artist May Lesser believes Freud’s early exposure to religion profoundly shaped the development of psychoanalysis. Talmudic scholars, she suggests, taught Freud to look for hidden meanings in every word and story.

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