First Responder: First Aid Arts Kit

August 12, 2020

By: Augusta Sparks, founder Arts in Health: First Aid Art Kit

Here is the thing you need to know. Way over here in the southeastern corner of Washington, in a land that is already besieged with loneliness, the same old health-care questions may no longer be relevant. People, creative and non-creatives alike, are being given the process of art making as a form of self-care in the time of COVID-19.

What is the impact of self-isolation, quarantine, and a pandemic on our capacity to cope?  And how does this relate to a pile of hand measured string, tied by rubber-bands?

It has been 9 weeks since I was struck by a flash that became a phrase. Not so much my invention, but rather, I am just another artist bringing attention to its brilliant obviousness. Tangential thoughts, associative thinking, mixed with Affect theory and a bit of Ellen Dissanayake’s Artification Hypothesis for good measure, creates what I am proposing is “empirical knowledge according to artists.”  The host of She’s a Talker podcast, artist Neil Goldberg’s Index Cards (where his thousands of observations about the everyday and overlooked collected onto index cards prompt brilliant conversations) is a ready, and wonderful, example.

Per my particular hit of the obvious, it probably helped I was in school for Arts in Health, when the Pandemic arrived. It also probably helped that I had spent the last two years photographing women from all walks of life, who felt unseen. It also probably helped that I was in a conversation with my local hospital about a practicum. And so many things, all the many things, that makes a person uniquely prepared to take on a project, converged.

I became one of those artists who responded to the Pandemic.

I have thought a lot about the artist’s ability to respond. To bring a force that is indomitable. Last winter, considering how socially engaged art practices might be employed as a show, I proposed an exhibition. The vehicle would be the socially accepted, societal norm called: resumes.  These would be the kind of resumes that as an artist, a mother, a volunteer, an entrepreneur and a founder would really like to share.

As many of these jobs happen regardless of inspiration, and are traditionally difficult to represent in a resume, I rely heavily on people’s belief in my work. Pulling from everything I have ever been, I whispered my empirical knowledge according to artists to Dr. Christopher Hall, the Chief Medical Doctor, here in Walla Walla.

Incidentally, there is scientific research that supports, and explains why what we started was not only totally awesome, it works, and has value. What was started, came from hours of collecting, breaking down, and repackaging, with a raising of the head periodically to nudge other artists to prepare themselves to come along. It was built from what was available in town, not what was desired. Many things came from donation, and not from fancy packaging. While others hoarded toilet paper, I gathered in my gloved hands as many watercolors, color pencils, and markers as I could find.

Beyond a resourceful collection of art materials, a partnership was built to begin. A partnership with Providence St. Mary Medical Center and Providence St. Mary Foundation to fund Arts in Health: First Aid Arts Kit (AIH: FAAK).

AIH: FAAK is distributed by Population Health, led by Becky Betts to patients in home isolation, community shelters, long term care, and to the hospital for both patients and caregivers. They are accompanied by a hospital hello, and public COVID-19 messaging delivered by illustrated birds to make it a bit more accessible. The kit contains multiple artist designed writing prompts, and creative process projects that can be built upon, plus coloring pages made by local artists. There is a support website with downloadable artists’ prompts in English and Spanish, accompanied by artist made video facilitation and a connection to learn about each artist’s mastery. In addition, there was promise of artist facilitation via a Telehealth format, however the funding has been exhausted, for now.

AIH: FAAK is created from art supplies purchased and donated from community businesses. Two community nonprofits stepped forward. Carnegie Picture Lab provided loose art paper from their elementary school program, and a space to assemble. ArtWalla hosted the platform, and the webmaster was paid to build the website. The artists were also offered payment for their work via the Providence St. Mary’s Foundation.

The value of the kits has been quantified through stories from nurses, shelter directors, chaplains, and a patient experience manager. Although some people hesitated, they accepted the gift. The value of the kits come as a surprise in our valley, as art is not an expected reliever of pain, not expected delivery method of wellness, not the expected magic carpet ride. And yet, many people know the feeling of turning up music as loud as possible, to escape our lives, our minds, and to be overtaken. The kit gives the opportunity to self-create that experience of escape with self-direction. Plus, the feeling of time and self suspension, elements of Flow theory by Csikszentmihalyi, is one of the bases of Arts in Health.  These kits provide flow and self-transcendence and are not about turning patients into artists. It gives artist training. A sit up is the training of an athlete and does not make you an athlete. It builds muscles and energy, and you can do art without leaving your chair. Artists know the wellbeing that can be experienced as a biproduct of doing the work. Arts in Health believes it is time to share this value.

This is not a new idea. It is being done in hospitals across the globe. Participating hospitals generally pay the artists to facilitate patients. It is not therapy. The hospitals are making a statement, art making has value. Artists show people in need that they are more than their diagnosis. The First Aid Art Kit project is built on the Arts in Health research. Except, it brings the art to the person wherever they are in the world. There is a larger framework in place, that relies on local artists’ mastery and understanding of topography, light and landscape of the surrounding area of the patient. So much good stuff, and it is growing.

Questions on how to achieve wellbeing via the arts led to Arts on Prescription or social prescription and is just plain brilliantly obvious. Policy change is on the horizon thanks to the leadership of Jill Sonke, and Daisy Fancourt. As Jerry Saltz reminds in his article, My Appetites. “The Greek definition of catastrophe is an “overturning” an end to the status quo.” As an artist and purveyor of empirical knowledge according to artists, I tend to agree, and in this catastrophe, I am here to hand out First Aid Art Kits.


Authors note:

I was invited to re-write the introduction of this piece in light of the uprisings. The writing is of such a moment, and always changing. I started to rip it apart. I started to shred the whole thing. So, I stopped myself and turned to some of the people working on the second iteration of the project this summer. The youth. Two are students at Whitman College, they applied and received a Mellon Grant to research the program's Impact. They came to my house to put kits together, and to discuss the Nurse interviews that would be started in the coming days. These kids are each involved in their own way with BLM, and with the specific protests in our town. As artists we are everywhere. Disrupting and supporting and dismantling and building.


Augusta Sparks Farnum founded Arts in Health: First Aid Art Kit in partnership with Providence St. Mary Hospital, and Providence St. Mary Foundation in response to COVID-19, in Walla Walla, Washington. She is currently attending the graduate Arts in Medicine program at the University of Florida. Augusta Sparks a multidisciplinary artist, and fifth generation photographer. She is represented by Studio Two Zero Two in Walla Walla, Washington.  Recent residency awards and invites include Lynda Benglis’s Boca De Chorro in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Annex Arts in Castine, Maine

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