Dental student Rachel returns to artistic roots for inspiration

An Aberdeen dental student who went back to her artistic roots to help her study has found her striking compositions have been well received by the profession and beyond.

What started for Rachel Jackson as a simple means of explaining her work to her daughter has now led to exhibitions of her work, award nominations and being commissioned to design the front cover of a leading dental journal.

Rachel, 36, from Inverness, now in her final year, admits the pressures of balancing her studies with being a mum meant she almost quit the programme six months in.

However, creativity soon became an essential lifeline for Rachel.

“I was away from my daughter during the week so at weekends, in an attempt to let her see what mum was doing at ‘school’ I would start to draw the things I'd seen or the things I'd learned and we would engage in these little activities. Initially I just did it for pleasure, but I quickly realised that what I had drawn, I understood.”

After realising the learning potential that drawing could have for her, Rachel started to use the technique regularly.

“In an exam situation I found I was able to picture in my mind’s eye an illustration I had done – it could be the skull and all the foramen that I needed to understand and be able to explain. I could close my eyes and talk my way back through that image, that drawing I’d done. This helped me get the information back down in an exam situation, so it then became useful.”

Although she has a background as a professional medical illustrator, Rachel is adamant that even if someone believes they have no talent for drawing, the practice can still be beneficial.  

“It's not about ‘art’. It's not about being fantastic at drawing. Imagine you're sat in front of a power point presentation. There's loads and loads of text. The first thing most students do is start rewriting lots of notes and all that is, is a pen in your hand re-writing ‘letters’. What I'm trying to get across is that you're using the pen and paper but you're drawing shapes as opposed to writing it with text. It's that same process, where the information goes into your head, but it's just going in, in a different way.”

And far from just being a means to learn information, Rachel says the practice can enhance a dentist’s practical skill as well.

“The drill and the pencil are completely interlinked and the ability to be able to draw and drill - I believe that they are two skills that completely complement one another.”

During her first few years at dental school, Rachel had built up a sizable portfolio.

“I discovered I had quite a lot of it and I thought, well what am I going to do with it? Anything? I wasn't sure. And I wasn't overly confident actually because I thought, ‘this seems a bit weird’. But I approached one of my tutors and I’m so glad I did. I remember standing with her in the corridor and showing her a few images and she almost had tears in her eye, bless her, and she said ‘we've got to do something with this, Rachel. It’s fantastic, it’s amazing’.

“Since then, within a year, it's been a case of people contacting me for commissions for my work, selling the work and moving forward to try and generate and produce an exhibition at the end.

“I couldn't believe how much the profession of Dentistry has embraced these concepts that I have, whether this be drawing skills for dentists or a different way of learning dentistry or whether this be using art to connect with people and emotions and professionalism, or whether this be about mindfulness and mental health.”

Rachel, whose story was featured in the British Dental Journal (BDJ) in April has since been commissioned to design the front cover of a new cover series for the publication celebrating 100 years of the British Dental Library. Rachel will work alongside the BDJ and historians to complete the work and hopes to use this as a platform to promote the importance of literature and art in education.

“This is an absolute dream project for me as it amalgamates all of my passions; art, science, dentistry, literature and education. It will be quite a challenge as each cover will be a piece of artwork in its own right. The creative journey will be released via regular blog posts.”

Rachel’s artwork has also been seen on the front cover of the International Journal of Cosmetic Dentistry. More recently Rachel had a piece in the running for a major Scottish creative arts award (The John Byrne Award), has exhibited her work at the British Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry Annual Conference and currently displays her artwork as part of a ‘living gallery’ within a newly built implant training centre; The Campbell Academy in Nottingham. 

The summer ahead will be a busy one but she aims to keep everyone updated on her journey via blog posts and has even more forthcoming projects still to be announced.