Using Art to Promote Health-with CHNA 18

Last Wednesday the West Suburban Community Health Network met at the Newton Library to explore ways that the arts can be used to promote health.  I had gathered a panel of amazing speakers; Tova Speter to talk about her community murals and her work as an art therapist, and David Ekelcamp to talk about his work doing art therapy in a residential school setting.  I also talked about Data Murals and some of the projects that Connection Lab has led this year.  The group was extremely responsive, and they had great questions about how we can integrate the arts more fully into the work that we do every day in our organizations.  Many of the participants already engage the arts in their programming, and others have art as part of their lives separate from work.

After the more theoretical conversation about why we do what we do and how we use the arts in our own work, we put the ideas into practice together.  A few years ago CHNA 18 completed a community health assessment that pointed to mental health as one of the key issues facing the CHNA’s member communities. Since then the group has been thinking about how best to address the issue.  Mental health is challenging to define and can be difficult to discuss publicly. Although the CHNA has offered funding to local organizations to carry out programs to improve mental health, more can be done to increase awareness and decrease stigma associated with mental health needs.

As a way to further the conversation, I led the workshop participants in a collaborative art project to explore the meaning of mental health and to create a mobile that will be displayed at organizations across the CHNA. We hope that it will increase discussion of mental health.  We began by creating word webs, collections of words that are associated with the terms ‘mental health” and “well-being”.

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We then divided into pairs to design squares with imagery inspired by words from the word webs.

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We placed each of the squares on the floor to see how the final mobile would look, and each pair of participants had an opportunity to explain their design. Images included a person’s internal “compass” guiding the decisions they have to make about their life, many representations of balance and stability, images of community coming together, nature, and a bandaged and strengthened brain.  The images are thought-provoking and powerful.

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As you can see, the color palette was limited, with only a few colors of paper and markers to choose from, so the whole mobile looked like one cohesive project when it was finished.  The group was proud of their creation and surprised that the whole project took less than an hour. I’m also proud that the supplies cost only $30, and could have cost even less if I’d had enough paper and glue on hand in advance.  Projects like this do not need to be expensive or time-consuming.

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I connected each of the cardboard squares with fishing line and hung them from a bar that has holes in it.  Many organizations have now offered to display the mobile, and it will be hung at its first home this week!

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I enjoyed the opportunity to combine more traditional powerpoint presentations with a hands-on activity and while I haven’t yet seen the evaluations, the whole groups seemed energized by the participatory art. I also enjoyed creating something that will have a life in the community beyond the one-morning presentation.  I hope that the group left inspired and that we will indeed find more ways to bring the arts into the health promotion efforts of CHNA 18 member organizations.

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