I had the opportunity to travel to the Oregon State University campus in Corvallis recently to attend a one-day symposium called “Creating Healthy Communities: Arts and Public Health in America.” The session title illustrates the power of cross-sector work in communities to improve health through many channels.
Emerging research is revealing the health benefits of both creating and experiencing art. In one of the most oft-cited articles on this topic, “The Connection Between Art, Healing, and Public Health: A Review of Current Literature,” published in the American Journal of Public Health (2010), authors Heather Stuckey, DEd, and Jeremy Nobel, MD, MPH, cite the ability of the arts to improve a panoply of health conditions, including stress, immune response, improvements in cardiac function, anxiety, fatigue, pain, cognitive function and overall quality of life.
However, as is the case with many health and social service initiatives, the arts and public health work in separate silos. The group of roughly 50 people gathered for the symposium came from around the country in the last of nine national meetings aimed at identifying how we can best move this body of work forward.
Attendees of the symposium included John Frohnmayer, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and retired U.S. state attorney for Oregon. Frohnmayer delivered the opening keynote to the session, titled “We Were Present at the Revolution and Missed It.” In his speech, Frohnmayer shared that we are in the midst of a social and political revolution; art has the power to heal the hostility, blame, inequality and exhaustion we are all experiencing.
“Art,” Frohnmayer explained, “by exposing the vulnerability of the artist, has the power to reestablish trust.”
In creating art, we often see and reconnect with nature; something we can all agree aids in healing. Art has the power to help the creator feel heard and seen. He continued by describing art’s ability to help us learn and move through failure and ambiguity. If you have ever sat before a blank page, a lump of clay, an empty canvas or a white computer screen with a cursor blinking back at you, you can relate to the struggle Frohnmayer describes.
Lastly, Frohnmayer explained, art reminds us “that not all human activities have to have a winner.” As someone who has dabbled in various creative endeavors, from playing musical instruments to making jewelry to painting and writing poetry, it was a good reminder of the common humanity that these pursuits can engender.
Hearing the variety of speakers also reminded me of the many, many ways that we humans express and experience creativity. The word “art” often connotes the visual arts in my own mind, but learning of other community efforts to promote and enhance the arts highlighted everything from group yoga classes, to community gardens, to group paint nights, to entire zip codes participating in more creative endeavors in the pursuit of improved health. I was also reminded that the benefits do not just come from making art ourselves; we get just as much of the good stuff when we experience art together. Watching a play, listening to live music, ambling through a gallery, or taking in the Big Art pieces around town are all ways we can experience art as well as the many health benefits associated.
It’s worth pointing out however, that the benefits weren’t noticed among viewers of cinema or television — so while the actors and actresses of movies and TV shows are certainly artists, binge watching your favorite show from the comfort of your own couch isn’t nearly as good for you as experiencing a brilliant piece out in the community.
This is thrilling new territory to be exploring. The old medical model of “take two aspirin and call me in the morning” is becoming a relic. As a student of public health myself, it has been exciting to witness the shift from that bio-medical focus on human health to one that embraces more of the social determinants of our health, like our education, economics, environment, background, housing, and access to food. It is not uncommon for doctors to prescribe fruits and vegetables in our community, through programs like Gorge Grown Food Network’s Veggie Rx, nor is it out of the ordinary to be prescribed additional physical activity through programs like OSU’s Strong Women and Strong People programs or the Summer Swim Rx program run by North Central Public Health District.
In fact, many of our local providers are doing a lot more to understand all the factors that influence our health. Embracing yet another facet of the whole person, that of our creative side, feels quite revolutionary. It is intriguing to imagine a future in which our doctors may say, “Take time to be creative today and call me in the morning.”
Knowing how good it is for our health, why wait for doctor’s orders? I’d encourage us all to spend a little time being creative today, and every day.
Lauren Kraemer is an assistant professor of practice at OSU Extension Family & Community Health.