Art Embodied: Public Health at Second Glance

Thoughts On
Marlesha S. Woods

Beyond the scope of creative expression, art in all of its forms can be defined as an external derivative of an internal process. Art culture refers to the totality of the influences that visual and performing expressions convey throughout streams of consciousness and interactions. Similar to a finger snap after a poetic monologue, art culture is embedded within society. However, often seen through the vantage point of right or left brain cognition, art culture is most often overlooked as a direct correlation to health and wellness.

According to social epidemiologist, Dr. Nancy Kreiger, "We interact constantly with the world in which we are engaged. That’s the way in which our biology actually happens. We carry our histories in our bodies."  Examining the public health sector through analyzing public art can inform policies and practices to equalize wealth, which can increase health determinants specifically in Black communities.

Ideation surrounding visual and performing arts as viable determinants of health can also reveal systemic barriers. The disenfranchisement of marginalized cohorts creates limited access to engaging with a transformative culture that significantly impacts biology. Countless articles and documentaries, such as Unnatural Causes, wherein Kreiger's premise of biology being defined by more than body but experiences embodied, yields applicable context towards the connection of art and science specifically health.

Persons that are consistently exposed to art culture perform higher academically. According to Brookings Institute, a Washington D.C. based research center’s international, expert researchers concerning academia and government, “We find that a substantial increase in art educational experiences has remarkable impacts on students’ academic, social, and emotional outcomes.” Art therapy is utilized in a broad range of environments. Holistic approaches to health and wellness tie healing agents to physiological outcomes. The participatory nature of art culture also, reveals mental and physical responses. If our biological reflection is indicative of our histories, what quality of life would one have if art was stripped away from our human experience?

Authors Heather L. Stuckey, DEd and Jeremy Nobel, MD, MPH concluded in The Connection Between Art, Healing, and Public Health: A Review of Current Literature that in all four examined areas of artistic expression music, visual arts, movement-based creative expression, and expressive writing “there are clear indications that artistic engagement has significantly positive effects on health.” Communities that have an abundance of art based programming, representation within the art produced and exhibited correlates with cohorts that have higher possibilities for healthier outcomes. Combating unhealthy exposures with art culture requires a closer view at the line of visual demarcation in cities across the U.S. that illuminate access to social determinants.

“There’s almost a cultural demarcation in the city where on one side of this particular street, Ninth Street, there’s a tremendous amount of new development going on, condos rising up. The downtown business environment is very much alive. And right across the street on Ninth Street, is where the beginnings of the first set of projects are, public housing projects”, stated Dr. Adawale Troutman, former Director of Louisville Metro Public Health and Wellness, during the filming of four part documentary, Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick?

Although the aforementioned documentary was filmed in 2008, the issues presented in the research are still present in Louisville today. Dr. Troutman posed the following inquiry twelve years ago:

“Is there adequate access to chain supermarkets in this area? The answer is no. As a matter of fact,why aren’t there zoning laws to regulate fast food outlets here? Enterprise zones to build businesses? Better transportation? Why isn’t there more mixed income housing? You know, all these things and others are health policy.”

The reference to “other” things being highly impactful to the health of communities would conceivably include exposures to visual and performing arts. Yet, access to art culture is not met without systemic obstacles in Louisville.

Both Dr. Krieger and Dr. Troutman among a vast list of esteemed social epidemiologists, researchers and medical professionals who contributed to Unnatural Causes, articulated issues of health that mirror current concerns within Metro Louisville bounds. Dr. Troutman recalled:

“When I first came to Louisville I was struck by how different the various communities look. And I began to wonder and then understand that there’s a direct connection between the health of the population in Louisville and the social conditions that can be seen as you go from one council district to another.”

There has been an influx in art exposure across socioeconomic confines in recent years in Louisville. Many of the city’s poverty-stricken neighborhoods are adorned with newly installed murals. Instead of sifting through traditional data sets in an effort to view the intersection of art and public health, one may begin exploring their cities’ art spaces. The trail of paint, chalk, ink, clay, and like materials are not symptomatic of fully actualized equities in the city of Louisville, but can introspectively reveal the health of its members through identifying exploitation, disenfranchisement, and monolithic racial representation or the lack thereof. Although development has occurred among art spaces, people, and practices, disadvantages have stifled progress towards realized barrier breaching.

Art, in its rawest form, is the language of the people. Depending on which neighborhood one travels, the means of communicating art drastically differs similar to the social conditions in which the visual and performing art was created. While the art industry has grown through newly erected galleries, renovated museums, public murals, and additional artful spaces, the art produced by Louisville’s citizens toes the same line of demarcation with its limitations and access points. Interestingly enough, the very medium that has provided liberating expression for centuries has been weaponized to maintain the status quo.

According to the prioritized agenda of Imagine Greater Louisville 2020, the initiative was launched to answer one question, “How can arts and culture best serve this community?” The inquiry acknowledges that Louisville’s diverse communities are in need of more equitable art practices, but the current lack of diversity within said industry offers implications of unhealthy determinants that accompany a lack of accessibility among marginalized cohorts. While African American community members are typically familiar with barriers encompassing health, academics, and economics, the art climate of Louisville also provides the same systemic stronghold through both process and representation.

“So often when you ride around in the city, and particularly in our city, you will see Black faces or you will see a Black narrative. And unfortunately, that was not a Black person that created it. It’s very, very important that we continue to speak through our work, especially in public. Public art, to me, is the gateway directly to the community. It is a way to uplift our community, to create ownership”, stated Louisville artist Ashley Cathey.

The language of racially imbalanced measures in Louisville are just as concise as the line of visual demarcation that severs Ninth Street and Roy Wilkins Ave from a thriving business district downtown. "Systems of oppression are individual, institutional, and societal and their effects on people have a long history deeply rooted in American culture,” according to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture. Across the U.S. there is a rippling echo amongst Black clinicians and artists of all mediums. This reverberation has sparked global conversations that uplift the racially oppressed to better serve a global community.

The ability of art to create channels for healing couldn't be clearer with current civil and political unrest within the U.S. From street art to protest signs, the first response to trauma throughout history has been an artful rendition of rebel, resist, and recreate. The symbiotic relationship emerging from art and public health during Louisville’s current protest, provides a second glimpse of the actionable lengths to which voiceless members of communities will interrupt inaccuracies to tell their stories. Life without art significantly impacts our narratives. To address accessibility to art, one may consider barriers prevalent in medical practices. How deep does systemic injustice run?

If our global community is in need of repair, we may want to begin with redefining what art can be as we change our history through engaged experiences without stratification. The inclination to observe artistry of any medium requires an analytical framework of voyeurism and accountability. Inquire about the street art, murals, and graffiti amongst us, while interjecting counterintuitive explorations of self, racial justice, historical context, social context, and ethical practices.

To better understand disparities, measure the pain revealed in the paint from the vantage point of the subject matter that rarely has access to uplift their own voices. Consider the exploited narratives painted in public spaces, the misrepresented racial minority people groups, and the racial wealth gap that is perpetuated through systemic bias in labor policies. Louisville has been misdiagnosed for far too long. The solution to inequalities within the art industry does not begin with creating more art. A surplus of art production without including more Black artists, widens the economic divide which impacts public health and reinforces biased social norms. Healing comes from within. Racial injustice has marred the streets of Louisville and while the world watches, inequality within the art industry is not just making us sick, it's a lethal dose of White privilege.


Image Courtesy: 3 Generations was inspired by a vintage, family photograph originating from the early 19th century post slavery. Marlesha S. Woods shares this private collection in memory of her late aunt, Olist Taliaferro Roberts [1916-2012] and countless Black artists that have been historically disenfranchised.



Marlesha S. Woods
Contributor to Ruckus

3 Generations, Olist Taliaferro Roberts. 1988. Oil on wood canvas. 22 in. x 28 in.

RUCKUS, 2018-2023
Louisville, KY