By Courtney Patterson

On the day The Sprout Fund interviewed Julie Sokolow, the Healthy Artists’ founder came home to a surprise delivery.  Pennsylvania-based MCS Industries had donated two giant boxes of 24 by 36 poster frames for The Healthy Artists Movie Poster Exhibition, opening January 4, 2013 at Modern Formations Gallery. The frames will display the creative designs of 20 top artists who are competing to have their poster selected as the official face of the Healthy Artists’ documentary series.

Sokolow shared the story of Healthy Artists and her excitement about the upcoming exhibition, which is funded by a Sprout Seed Award.

You’re a musician and filmmaker. What led you to start an organization focused on health care reform?

It started with a friend of mine, who, two years ago, convinced me that this is the social justice issue of the 21st century.  He lent me T.R. Reid’s book The Healing of America, which was eye-opening.  Every other industrialized nation offers healthcare to its citizens. We spend more on healthcare, but we don’t take care of everyone. So I started volunteering for Health Care 4 All PA, which educates people on single-payer healthcare, aka medicare for all. While I was volunteering, there were a lot of movements going on like Occupy, fueled by young people and new media.  I wanted to get young people involved in the pursuit of universal health care.  At the same time, in my personal life, I was starting to think more critically about the artist’s lifestyle, and how we too often accept that it should be fraught with instability.  I ended up interviewing my friends in the arts scene about their lives, their art, and their experiences with being uninsured and underinsured.  I began a documentary series that focused on the healthcare stories of ambitious and inspiring people. If only these artists had health care resources available to them, and were liberated from this mundane, yet critical source of worry, they would flourish that much more.

What are some of the stories you’ve documented that have been especially compelling?

One of our documentaries is on Sigh Meltingstar, a multimedia artist who has a prominent studio space in the Penn Avenue Arts District.  He’s colorful, full of life, and amazing. He has Crohn’s Disease, and he’s uninsured. He doesn’t have a sense of entitlement about health care. He is doing what he can in his life to battle with a really serious disease that deserves medical attention.  Our video on Sigh won 3rd prize in the Disposable Film Festival’s Health Create-a-thon, an international film festival.  That confirmed that our grassroots efforts could have resonance beyond Pittsburgh.

In another video, we interview Ken Bolden, who is an incredible actor and a serious scholar of 17th and 18th century literature.  I was lucky enough to have him as a professor at the University of Pittsburgh.  He’s in his fifties.  As an adjunct faculty member, he could lose his healthcare at any moment.  As he gets older, he notices that a lot of his friends are dropping out of the arts, especially if they want to start families.  Ken speaks about how people often give up on their passions, what they love and are trained to do, because of the healthcare issue.

How do you get young people engaged in the healthcare reform discussion?

Our main focus is producing the documentary series, which is online and free-to-watch at:  www.healthyartists.org   We visually highlight young artists, creative work, and the colorful studios, apartments, and houses, these folks inhabit.   We edit with a sense of humor.  We want to help people engage with the issue, by staying upbeat, so they don’t get too weighed down by the gravity of injustice.  We also strive to get people in a room together talking about these issues.  We want to bridge the gap between young people, artists, health care educators, and advocates. We held one event in August called the Future of Healthcare, which was partially a creative workshop. We asked people to draw and write creative representations of their healthcare experiences and present them on stage. We had a lot of people 19-29, very impassioned and vocal, sharing their stories. That’s one of the most uninsured, at risk demographics.

What inspired the movie poster exhibition?

Perhaps it’s not surprising that a lot of people in our group are big film nerds. We love classic films and the Criterion Collection and we know that design and illustration are a big part of representing films and adding a new layer of meaning.  We wanted a compelling movie-poster-style image to represent our documentary series.  We came up with the idea to commission 20 artists to design a poster for our series and have an esteemed judges panel pick the winning design.  We hand-picked fifteen of our favorite Pittsburgh-based artists to design us posters.  Also, we collaborated with the Original Magazine at the University of Pittsburgh to have five exceptional student artists, nominated by their professors, in the show.

With the [Seed Award], we felt more confident in approaching national-level arts leaders and asking them to be judges for the exhibition.  Our panel includes Eric Skillman, graphic designer for the Criterion Collection, Brett Yasko, Director of Design for Mass MoCA, Nicholas Chambers, a curator for the Warhol Museum, and Lisa Smith-Reed, producer of Steeltown Film Factory.  The artists are submitting digital files of their work to be judged.  We have a range of visual artists in the show, including photographers, graphic designers, comic illustrators, and painters.  Each piece that rolls in looks very different, and that’s exciting to us.

What activities and speakers do you have lined up for opening night?

At the opening night event on January 4th, we will kick off the month-long exhibition and also, announce the winning top three designs.  These artists will receive cash prizes and the first prize design will also be the official representation of our documentary series.  After we announce the winners, one of our favorite Pittsburgh bands, The Harlan Twins, will rock Modern Formations.

We have six health care educators speaking at the opening night event. There’s Jude Vachon, founder of Be Well! Pittsburgh, a resource of healthcare options for the uninsured. She is bringing an interactive healthcare activity. We have speakers from Planned Parenthood and Women of Color for Reproductive Justice, so we’ve got different aspects of the healthcare issue represented.  What If Post and The Thomas Merton Center will be there.  Scott Tyson of Healthcare 4 All PA will be a key speaker, sharing a new economic impact study that shows how single-payer will benefit Pennsylvania.

What do you hope will come out of this event?

We want to connect young people and artists to the healthcare advocates and educators in their city, and we want our efforts to inspire folks in other cities, just as we were inspired by the progress in Vermont.  Rallying is great, but right now, we’re trying to utilize the specialized strengths if individuals for this cause.  We’re getting artists to donate their talents and generate powerful imagery around the pursuit of justice in health care.  We want to get all these people together to bring about fruitful collaboration, we want to educate the public about the issue, and also, we want to get these amazing artists more exposure.  We’re trying to make activism as fun, meaningful, and symbiotic as possible.

What words of hope can you offer to young people burdened by healthcare issues?

The vast majority of Americans compassionately support universal health care.  There are physicians around this nation who are paving the way, their group is called Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP).  Scott Tyson, a major pediatrician in Pittsburgh and force behind Health Care 4 All PA is one of them.  He quoted Martin Luther King Jr. at a healthcare rally downtown, saying: “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in healthcare is the most shocking and inhumane.”  Martin Luther King Jr. said that in 1966, so this is a long running issue and it’s something that everyone wants in their hearts. They want their fellow citizens to be taken care of in this way. It’s just a matter of time before it happens.

The Healthy Artists Movie Poster Exhibition opens January 4th, 2013 from 7-11 pm at Modern Formations Gallery, as part of Pittsburgh’s Unblurred Art Crawl.  Learn more and watch the documentary series at www.healthyartists.org