UIC nurses’ artwork shows commitment to patient care

UIC News

Clinical assistant professor Sean Murphy with his original artwork depicts nurses’ commitment to caring for patients 24 hours a day. (Photo courtesy of UIC)

Clinical assistant professor Sean Murphy with his original artwork depicts nurses’ commitment to caring for patients 24 hours a day.

Four paintings depicting a psychiatric nurse’s night shift, painted by UIC College of Nursing clinical assistant professor Sean Murphy, were published in the April issue of the American Journal of Nursing.

“Four Phases of the Night” is a meditation on nurses’ commitment to caring for patients 24 hours a day, said Murphy, a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner. The series reflects a chronological progression from evening, when a night nurse first arrives and gathers reports, through the quiet of night, to dawn, which erupts into a hectic pace of charting and handing-off information.

“I’m not a trained artist,” said Murphy, who used acrylic on canvas for this series. “This is my way of trying to digest and metabolize what comes up for me as I think about the profession, and probably more importantly, as I work with patients. I think psychiatry is difficult, and in the course of a week, I have to find some way to work through all the content of my work life.”

The American Journal of Nursing features visual art, flash fiction and poetry several times a year in a column called the “Art of Nursing.” The journal’s editor-in-chief, Carl A. Kirton, says, “Murphy’s homage to the experiences of night shift work and night workers and the imagery in the pieces is an important ‘read’ reflecting the night nurse’s experiences.”

“Art is an important mechanism to help the healer express inner thoughts and emotions through a variety of media,” he adds. “AJN has been a long supporter of this strategy and embraces not only the scientific side of nurses, but the expressive side as well.”

Murphy, who earned a PhD in literary theory before getting his master’s in nursing at UIC, said he began painting last year during a summer break from teaching. He said he got the idea to submit his artwork to academic journals after showing some of his paintings at a juried show. A local artist suggested he leverage his existing networks to gain more of an audience.

“I’m an academic and have access to journals, so I sent some things out,” he said. “I didn’t think people would even be interested, to be honest.”

Murphy said he’s been surprised by the welcoming response his art has received from the academic community. Six of his pieces were also published in the March issue of Diacritics, with even more of his art accepted for publication in other upcoming academic journals.

Murphy, who recalls training on 12-hour shifts at Mount Sinai Hospital as a student in the UIC Nursing master’s program, said he used a darker color palette to capture the mood of going through a night shift for a psychiatric nurse.

In the American Journal of Nursing piece, Murphy said, he was inspired by a quote attributed to scientist Louis Pasteur, which he believes gets to the heart of nursing: “One doesn’t ask of one who suffers: What is your country and what is your religion? One merely says, you suffer, this is enough for me. You belong to me and I shall help you.”

“We witness a lot of trauma in people’s lives and human suffering,” Murphy said. “There’s no time to digest and there may not be the tools, and then it’s on to the next patient.”

Murphy adds that he hopes to encourage “clinical imagination” — different ways of thinking about clinical practice and solutions — among his students and other nurses.

“I think nurses are really the communicators and teachers of health care,” he said. “I’m trying to suggest to others that this is another way of communicating, not necessarily with patients but with ourselves and other nurses.”