The Role of Art in Creating Healthy Communities

Lately I’ve been reading about many different definitions of what makes a community healthy.  Some of the ideas surprise me.  Some don’t.  But one thing that does surprise me is how rarely art is mentioned.  Some organizations are indeed making a connection between art and health, but they’re few and far between.

So what can art contribute to health promotion efforts and to the overall health of a community?

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Visual Appeal for Complex Ideas

On a recent project I spent months helping a group articulate their actions, their goals and their desired outcomes. At certain moments it was like pulling teeth.  But then we turned the same information (word-for-word) into a picture and all of a sudden people perked up.  The planning group was more engaged in the conversation, other people in the city came up to me to tell me that the project was going well and I overheard people from other communities talking about the graphic.  It was as if we had flipped a switch, and the only change was that we had turned the information into a visual. The visual had the power to be understood at a glance, provide more detail from closer in, and to show complex connections without being wordy.  Magic.

Clarity

We learn to “read” pictures long before we learn to read words.  We learn how to read comics long before we learn to read academic journals.  Why do people like murals?  Like comics, they usually don’t require formal literacy. They don’t require academic expertise. If they’re done well they make sense to everyone who walks by.

Powerful Connotations

When a group of 10 year-olds sat down to design a mural about safety, they started with a heart.  To me, a woman in my 30s, a heart is just a shape, but to them, it means “girl power” and brings with it a weight and a story that means more than just a shape.  Similarly, the “above the influence” symbol that dominated a recent quilt represents a host of ideas that the youth creators believe in, and ties them to the larger national “above the influence” movement.

Opportunities for Raising Awareness

I’ve never seen anyone gather around a report trying to get a glimpse of what’s inside, but during a recent quilt project we knew that if we worked on the quilt in the hospital cafeteria it would get some people interested.  Mural painting also draws a crowd.  Even the people walking by in the good clothes are sometimes tempted to pick up a brush and help, or at least to take a minute to look at the image.

Brevity

Perhaps because they’re colorful and smaller than a report, graphics are “share-able” and “post-able” and can reach a broad audience. In the same way, a logic model that connects ideas with arrows on one sheet of paper is less intimidating than pages and pages of text.

Community-Building and Community Engagement

Positive youth development happens when there are meaningful opportunities for young people to contribute to the community.  I’d argue that positive person development (of any age) happens through opportunities to contribute meaningfully to the community.  Health outcomes are better for older people who are less isolated.  Socialization is actually good for health. We work hard at community building in public health. We know that it contributes to a huge number of other important health outcomes, and what’s the EASY and FUN way to build community? Art! And the relationships that are built through art spill over into the other work that we try to do as a community.  Do you remember the people that you painted with? Do you remember the people that you sat in a conference hall with?

Beauty

When a street is colorful, when a wall isn’t blank, it makes people walk more slowly, it might make someone smile.

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