What Does Health Equity Have to do With Art?

December 19, 2017

By: April Greene for ArtPlace America

Artist Andrew Cozzens’ sculpture Smoketown Life|Line Project uses vertical metal rods to represent the “lifelines” of residents in Louisville, Kentucky’s Smoketown neighborhood. The height of the rod represents the age of each individual. The rods are sized, bent, and banded with different colors to indicate timelines and the types of trauma they’ve experienced throughout their lives: things like incarceration, addiction, and mental illness. Individually, each rod tells a unique story about one person’s growth through numerous obstacles. Collectively, the rods paint a picture of the health landscape in Louisville today: multidimensional and unequal, but malleable.

Smoketown Life|Line Project is featured in the Center for Health Equity’s Louisville Metro Health Equity Report 2017, the third such report since 2011. This edition’s focus is “Uncovering the Root Causes of Our Health,” and it strives to illuminate these causes as well as show policy makers, residents, and local government employees how they can intervene at different levels to help create health equity in Louisville Metro. The report recognizes that “health equity is everybody’s work.”

Arts and Public Health
Louisville Metro is emphasizing an inclusive and multidisciplinary approach to improving public health, which includes arts and culture as a core strategy. Multiple sections in the report open with images of work created by Louisville-area based artists—just one way its authors sought to represent the human experiences that exist behind data, and to show art’s capacity to tell valuable stories through a different, and often unexpected, medium. The Center for Health Equity, who designed the report say that the report is “designed as a tool for policy makers and residents to better understand how they can create more equitable policies and practices, and it examines the history of Louisville and how our past has influenced our present.

Andrew Cozzens’ sculpture was selected to introduce the report’s chapter on health outcomes and the lead-in reads: “Across a lifetime, residents of Louisville Metro will experience different circumstances (root causes of health) that will determine both their quality and length of life. The circumstances residents are born into will literally shape the course of their lives.”

Cozzens is an artist with Project HEAL (Health. Equity. Art. Learning.), the community health development model pioneered by our colleagues at IDEAS xLab. (Check out a conversation we hosted with IDEAS xLab co-founder Theo Edmonds about the intersection of public health with arts and culture at the 2015 ArtPlace America Grantee Summit.)

Beneficial Health Impacts 
Project HEAL is bringing the beneficial health impacts individuals experience when they participate in art and cultural activities to communities, by engaging artists to co-design interactive health-based programming.Theo said ‘perhaps arts and culture can be the force that encourages the kind of behavioral shifts needed for sustained health improvement on both the individual and community scale.’

Cozzens’ Smoketown Life|Line Project was one of Project HEAL’s first initiatives. To build it, he sited the structure on a high-traffic corner and, for one month, spoke directly with passersby about their personal stories, especially those experiences that he wrote in his artist statement “may have prevented them from achieving their dreams or caused [them] to ‘stray from the straight and narrow path.’” Cozzens then cut, kinked, and colored sections of each rod to reflect each person’s history of trauma. “As each steel rod is bent,” he wrote, “the initial structure is compensated over and over again, leaving the rod far from straight—just as these traumatic experiences prevent a full recovery from ever happening. The height of the rod, representing the age of the individual, also gets shorter with every bend. This represents the toll that it has on the overall health or lifespan of that individual.” Although the resulting work is anonymous and abstract, Cozzens says it does leave viewers to wonder “how tall might their line have been without all of these incidents? How can we prevent these things from happening to the individuals whose lines are less than one foot tall? What would my line look like? What will my children’s line look like?"

April Greene is a freelance writer who provides superlative writing and editorial services to noble nonprofits and righteous social enterprises.