Updated: Apr 1
by Jen Stevens
Photos by Livia Radwanski
Visual artist, composer, and curator Jazzmen Lee-Johnson is a Brown University and RISD graduate currently serving as the Rhode Island Department of Health’s (RIDOH) Artist-in-Residence. Her extensive body of work explores critical race theory, the Atlantic slave trade, Black feminist theory, museum interpretation, and new media studies. Options checked in with Lee-Johnson, who identifies as queer, to learn about her role with RIDOH.
What health disparities have you focused on while serving as the RI Department of Health's Artist-in-Residence?
People have developed their symptoms for a reason. Disparities across race, class, ability, gender, and sexuality, are all connected, and can all be linked to our health. All these disparities work in tandem.
First and foremost, I am committed to engaging, inserting, and asserting marginal bodies through the arts as a means to address and mend societal fissures across these intersections of identities and experiences. My time thus far at the Department of Health has translated into a lot of information gathering, conversations, listening, learning, and research around the social determinants of health and health equity. I have been able to fold into some of the work the department is already doing and provide an artistic perspective, as well as co-create some new projects.
I am working with the offices of Minority Health, Refugee Health, Comprehensive Cancer Control, Asthma, and the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) working group to address different health disparities around trauma, nutrition, quality of life/palliative care, environmental effects on health, sexual health awareness, and building with, sustaining, and helping to support community. And lastly addressing the overall dissemination of health information.
As artist-in-residence I am creating a portfolio in a sense. I believe in order to make a case for an “Art and Health in All Policies” approach, I must show a varied range of projects that demonstrate the ways the arts can address health equity.
And so around trauma/trauma-informed care, and supporting the community in having their own sense of agency and self-empowerment, I am working with Can We Talk, a community-based group trauma therapy project on the Southside of Providence rooted in monologue, dialogue, and holding space. I provide an arts component to help get participants ready for the weight of the program, and an outlet to process the emotions that surface.
Around nutrition I am launching a Graphic Novel Cookbook – a multi-generational project that connects refugee and non-refugee youth with elders to learn and make recipes, [and explore] community gardening, budget shopping, and communication skills (the art of interviewing/storytelling).
In a short time, within their US context, many refugees begin to acquire all the US health issues: high blood pressure, diabetes, stress-related smoking and drinking, weight gain, etc. Refugee youth especially struggle with nutrition because they often times reject food and recipes from their culture in hopes to assimilate into US culture by eating American food. This project aims to connect folks to each other and their culture through cooking, and uses the graphic novel medium to preserve the stories and experiences around food.
Flee Plantation. Relief print by Jazzmen Lee Johnson
I am working with Comprehensive Cancer Control (CCC) to create a community story mapping project. The CCC mapping project incorporates new technologies and community engagement to publish technical and statistical reports and publications related to cancer burden. Above all, we are working to gather the personal stories of people who have interfaced with cancer at some level (caretakers, patients, etc.) through interactive animation, video, sound, and music.
I am working with Asthma to understand the environmental pollutants of the Port of Providence, and how these pollutants affect the surrounding communities of color/marginalized communities. This is a public art project that will investigate the historical connections between the Port of Providence slavery/colonialism, relationships to tribes, and the contemporary combination of concentrated poverty, housing quality, air quality, and noxious land use.
I am working with the SOGI working group to create sustainable connections across generations of LGBTQ community partners. Through a series of roundtables and artistic collaborations with community partners I hope to develop visual material around sexual health awareness, gender identity understanding, and perhaps a float for the Pride parade.
Lastly but certainly not least, I believe a caretaker needs care too. I see RIDOH as the caretakers of Public Health. Dealing with the inner workings of our healthcare systems, public health, and health policy is a lot. It’s heavy. I wanted to be sure to provide opportunities for RIDOH employees to take care of their own health by providing art pop-ups at the agency.
Our first art pop-up was a silkscreen printing station I set up right at the entrance of the building. People were so excited to print their own totes. The colors, the physical process of pulling a print, the music playing out of the portable speaker, the striking up a conversation while waiting in line to print—all positively changed the vibe at the department. Providing these experiences for RIDOH staff changes the culture of the agency: it normalizes and makes the arts feel more accessible. And if the arts become part of the social fabric of the agency, folks begin to be more open to see it spill into other aspects of the work that they do. We will continue to have art pop-up in the months to come. Next up will be a breakdancing/movement workshop and performance!
Why should art-based approaches be used as a strategy to address health inequities?
Art functions in many cadences. Sometimes a feeling, a pain, an emotion can’t be articulated or processed in words. Sometimes it is not enough to have a conversation, or a PowerPoint presentation, or even a pill. The arts gets at the interstices of our health and our daily life to process the more intricate and complex nuances of ourselves and our social systems, not only on a therapeutic level, but also as a means to communicate.
Art is a way to give voice, to share stories, to disseminate information, to process trauma, to heal, to reconnect to the body; to build understanding, communication, and common language despite difference; to create campaigns, and movement that can ultimately change policy; that can ultimately inform, that can ultimately empower, that can ultimately heal. I’m not saying that painting will solve food access, or that a song will change our air quality. Well, maybe I am.
A song can spread awareness, or soothe, or release, or build one’s lungs, amplify one’s voice, activate one’s memory. And that’s just a song. I guess what I’m saying is that art works. It functions on so many levels to access the ways and things we need to shift, tweak, reinforce, change, transform.
Art is truly a transformative tool. It is a powerful underutilized optimal tool. And we need effective tools to make real change.
How can public agencies engage artists to help fulfill their missions?
In addition to artists being embedded in the community, they are able to use their medium of choice to say something or share something in a way, in a different mode. There is a fragmented relation, disconnect, and even distrust between the community and public agencies. To progress we must create sustained efforts and long-term community relationships utilizing multiple methods, from the arts to grassroots organizing, and collaborations across all stakeholders from community to government and everyone in between. And art is crucial, whether it’s utilizing a specific medium to create connections and build, or working with an artist to help create those connections. Artist and arts can change the culture of an agency.
They can literally transform the building itself (mural, hanging artwork, filling a room with music, providing arts activities to folks who occupy the agency’s building), or find new ways to engage information and different publics. Give artist a seat at the table. That is the best way that artists can help to fulfill an agency’s mission. Having a seat at the table.
Like civil and human rights activist Ella Baker, the main aspect of the work I want to do as Artist-in-Residence at the Rhode Island Department of Health will be social making—quilting connections together between community, resources, health, and the arts. More than a single event, or a piece of art, social making is the greatest legacy I can leave behind.
Readers are encouraged to discover Lee-Johnson’s animation, album, many visual essays, and more at her website: jazzmenleejohnson.com