Defining Where Health, Environment, and the Arts Meet

We’ve come to the twentieth entry in the Bamboo Pen. Sebold Communications has been in business for over a decade. This year, with first-rate help from Gallop Web Services, we redesigned our Web site to make it more responsive and useful to you, our clients and readers.

To mark all three occasions, I’m taking time to define the four interdisciplinary fields we promote through words and programs. They are—as you may have discerned from our tagline and past interviews—environmental health, arts in health, arts in environment, and arts in development.

Like most of my posts to date, this one is evergreen. I’d like it to be a “growing evergreen.” So as experts, feel free to expand the definitions with examples and resources. Once your comments accumulate, I’ll update the article. I may even quote you, if you allow. In the interim, I’d be happy to tweet news of your work.

Environmental Health

Let’s start by defining “environmental health,” the best known of the four. According to the World Health Organization, environmental health

addresses all the physical, chemical, and biological factors external to a person, and all the related factors impacting behaviors. It encompasses the assessment and control of those environmental factors that can potentially affect health. It is targeted toward preventing disease and creating health-supportive environments. This definition excludes behavior not related to environment, as well as behavior related to the social and cultural environment, and genetics.

You can find other definitions of environmental health on the Web sites of the U.S. National Environmental Health Association, which publishes the Journal of Environmental Health, and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, which funds scientific research.

What Environmental Health Covers

Topics in environmental health include, but certainly aren’t limited to, the environmental causes of cancer and other diseases, the effects of pollution and climate change on human health, animal- and vector-borne diseases, housing and land use, disaster preparedness, nanotechnology, nutrition, and food and water sanitation—where the field arguably began in nineteenth-century England.

Specialties of environmental health include environmental epidemiology, toxicology, exposure science, and newer areas like EcoHealth, which assesses how changes in the Earth’s ecosystems affect human health, and ecopsychology, which covers the relationship between human beings and the natural world. Horticultural therapy and forest bathing are ecopsychological practices.

Further Reading and Future Posts

My interview with pediatrician Robert Zarr falls under ecopsychology—in part. If the subfield is new to you, you may want to start there. Then, sit outside somewhere green to read Biophilia by E.O. Wilson and Voice of the Earth by Theodore Roszak, who coined the term.

To survey recent medical literature on nature’s impact on child health, visit the Children & Nature Network. For a lighter read, check out the blog of the Therapeutic Landscapes Network.

In future posts, I’ll explore infectious disease and climate change; homelessness and water sanitation; environmental health literacy; and related fields, like conservation medicine and occupational health psychology. Nature, including botany, will get its due, too. I tweet about environmental health and the environment regularly.

Arts in Health

“Arts in health” is an umbrella term, not unlike environmental health. Although most people realize that the environment affects our bodies and minds for good or ill, not everyone knows that the arts positively shape our physical and mental health. In fact, scholars have documented their efficacy.

In The Arts, Health and Wellbeing, the Arts Council England defines arts in health as

arts-based activities that aim to improve individual and community health and healthcare delivery, and which enhance the healthcare environment by providing artwork or performances.

The Arts Health Network Canada created a useful infographic of arts in health—an artful definition.

How Arts in Health Works

Specialties of arts in health include individual- and community-oriented visual arts, writing, music, drama, dance/movement, and culinary therapies, as well as healthcare architecture and interior design. You’ll encounter artists from many disciplines, experts in health promotion and communications, and practitioners of arts in conflict and medical humanities, which uses the humanities, social sciences, and the arts to advance healing.

Locally, nationally, and internationally, arts-in-health programs help residents in hospices and long-term care facilities, clients of mental health and rehab programs, and prisoners. Audiences also include school children, disadvantaged communities and individuals, participants in special-needs and wellness programs, refugees and homeless people, medical providers and disaster-response teams, and active and retired military. The field began in veterans’ hospitals in the United States during the Second World War.

Arts in health can result in significant reductions in insomnia, depression, anxiety, pain, post-traumatic stress, hospital stays, medical visits, medication use, and—by extension—healthcare costs. Consumers of arts in health benefit socially. Artists develop their disciplines. Communications improve between patients and caregivers, especially in buildings that feature fountains and artistic signage designed to welcome and calm.

Proof and Upcoming Articles

There are joint university programs in fine arts and public health. Medical schools encourage students to study the humanities. You can even come up with your own quasi arts-in-health program to help you write at work.

Simply attending arts programs improves health and wellbeing. It encourages us to celebrate, strengthen, and preserve our own and others’ cultures—to feel pride when surrounded by struggle and loss. At an exhibit I helped curate, I saw two artists embrace after their presentations: one had seen the towers fall on 9/11; the other had endured years of conflict in her home country, Iraq. Both found personal healing through painting in response to Iraqi poetry about war and resilience. For another example of how the arts alleviate trauma, see my post on Lisa Garlock, an art therapist who uses arpilleras (story quilts) to mend individuals and communities.

Last year, the International Journal of Nursing Studies published a review of medical literature on arts in health. One of many online, it covers the last ten years. The American Journal of Public Health surveyed arts in health in an earlier article.

In an upcoming post, I’ll focus on arts in health in Syria, where I lived long before the war. Later, I may examine how arts in diplomacy, visionary or outsider art, improv theater, and arts in education overlap with arts in health.

Arts in Environment

Google (or Bing) “arts in the environment,” and you won’t find it. Instead, you’ll find “environmental art,” which encompasses only the visual arts. What about the others? They have evoked landscapes and addressed environmental catastrophe just as often as sculpture and painting. Get on Twitter, and every day, you’ll see writing, drama, dance, music, and more on nature and climate change. Where, then, is the umbrella term—the equivalent of “arts in health”?

Let’s start to answer the question by defining environmental art, from ancient cave to modern junk art. Then, helped by the accepted definitions of environmental health and arts in health, we can define arts in environment.

Based partly on a 2010 greenmuseum.org post by Sam Bower, Wikipedia defines environmental art as

a range of artistic practices encompassing both historical approaches to nature in art and more recent ecological and politically motivated types of works.

So ancestors’ scribblings of bison on walls and more recent paintings of buffalo-filled landscapes constitute historical approaches to nature in art. Those who practice “art in nature,” a subfield of environmental art, might create ethereal constructions of twigs and flowers, with or without an environmental message. So-called land, or earth, artists move, dig into, or otherwise alter landscapes, sometimes permanently and harmfully.

EcoArt, Branch of Environmental Art

For the purposes of defining arts in environment, we are most interested in what visual artists call “ecological art,” or “EcoArt,” which began in the 1960s—around the same time as land art—to advocate the Earth’s, not the ego’s, good. Among ecological artists would be sculptors who address habitat destruction by fashioning bison or buffalo out of natural materials found on the prairie. In the last fifteen years, EcoArt has surged because of concern about climate change.

EcoArtNetwork offers the following definition:

Ecological Art is an art practice that embraces an ethic of social justice in both its content and form/materials. EcoArt is created to inspire caring and respect, stimulate dialogue, and encourage the long-term flourishing of the social and natural environments in which we live. It commonly manifests as socially engaged, activist, community-based restorative or interventionist art.

Proposed Definition of Arts in Environment

In view of the preceding definitions, I propose that

arts in environment uses the visual arts, architecture, music, dance, creative writing, drama, culinary and other arts to call attention to environmental issues and promote the Earth’s health, including the well-being of humans and other species.

Found poetry, found music, slow food, acoustic ecology, and documentary film may find a way into arts in environment. Feel free to amend the definition or suggest other nonvisual arts in environment.

In future posts, I may survey subfields of EcoArt, such as restorative art, sustainable art, recycled art, and green art and architecture. I may interview practitioners of ecovention, urban acupuncture, and social sculpture. For an example of restorative art, see my article on Patterson Clark.

Related visual arts like found art, junk/trash art, BioArt, and SciArt may prove intriguing. We may dig into traditional crafts, landscape painting, art in nature, even land and crop art.

Learn and Question More

For now, begin by reading Land and Environmental Art (1988) by Jeffrey Kastner and Brian Wallis. For newer resources and links, visit EcoArtNetwork and Leonardo, which focuses on arts, technology, and the sciences, including the environment.

So far, there’s little proof of EcoArt’s power to educate or directly benefit the environment. I found one study of environmental art, climate change, and carbon offsets. In 2015, Scientific American published a piece on climate-change data and environmental art. But I can’t find any analyses of the effectiveness of nonvisual arts on raising environmental awareness or instigating positive, lasting change—even locally. Stay tuned. Send me your thoughts—or research.

Arts in Development

More established than arts in environment is “arts in development.” Although the field makes use of many artistic disciplines (like literature and theater) to advance health, education, environment, social justice, you-name-it, the “arts” are often handmade traditional crafts. At best, finished products bear “fair trade” and “organic” labels.

Outside of major cities, like Washington, DC, “development” doesn’t imply international, and, sadly, “international,” especially in “international development” circles, doesn’t always include disadvantaged communities in so-called developed countries. In the Bamboo Pen, development as in fundraising for a business or nonprofit doesn’t interest us. Nor do we care about a living thing’s maturation (apart from the four fields of the blog).

Fair Trade, Best of Arts in Economic Development

Instead, our focus is on crafts and agricultural goods, like artisanal honey and soap, used in local, national, and international “economic development.” Arts in development, done well, benefits producers financially, if not culturally and socially, and leads to improvements in their families’ health and education. Ideally, arts in development projects are also fair trade: from design to sale, they favor craftspeople and farmers over middlemen and are environmentally sustainable.

When it comes to definitions, the word “economic” is key to distinguishing arts in development from the other three fields we’ve defined. Fair-trade arts (and agriculture) in economic development is really what we’re after.

The World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) offers the following definition:

Fair Trade is a trading partnership, based on dialogue, transparency and respect, that seeks greater equity in international trade. It contributes to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of, marginalized producers and workers—especially in the [global] South.

Fair Trade organizations have a clear commitment to Fair Trade as the principal core of their mission. They, backed by consumers, are engaged actively in supporting producers, awareness raising and in campaigning for changes in the rules and practice of conventional international trade.

Gender equity, capacity building, and healthy working conditions are among the ten principles of Fair Trade the WFTO advocates.

You can find other definitions on the websites of U.S. organizations like the Fair Trade Federation  and TransFair USA.

History and Distinctions

In the United States, fair trade started in 1946 when the Mennonite Central Committee founded Ten Thousand Villages, which sells crafts (and now foodstuffs) in stores across the country. Fair trade became a movement against neo-imperialism in the 1960s, when makers wanted fair and equal access to markets. Crafts became less attractive to consumers in the 1980s, so fair traders moved into agriculture. Concerns about the environment arose, and certification and labeling regimes began. See the Fair Trade Resource Network for a very nice timeline.

Not all arts, or crafts, in development organizations are certified in fair trade, even though they meet many of the qualifications. You can learn about the pioneering work of Aid to Artisans in an earlier post. GoodWeave, another U.S. nongovernmental organization, works to eliminate child labor in carpet production. Human rights and education are their primary concerns.

To survey fair-trade arts in development, consult The Impact of Fair Trade on Social and Economic Development: A Review. To learn more about arts in development generally, read Art, Culture and International Development: Humanizing Social Transformation, a book published in 2015.

I’ll blog on fair-trade (and nearly certifiable) organizations and individual artisans. Future posts may feature Ten Thousand Villages and Serrv, which market jewelry made by silversmiths in Mexico and recycled-paper baskets woven by entrepreneurs in Vietnam—among many other edible and nonedible artisanal products. On my list are the Women’s Bean Project, where American homeless women assemble soup mixes, and Al Mokha, which sells coffee from war-torn Yemen. Get inspired yourself by volunteering for a fair-trade group near you!

Conclusion

By now, you’re probably amazed, if not overwhelmed, by the many places where health, environment, and the arts meet. You also may have noticed considerable overlap between environmental health, arts in health, arts in environment, and arts in development. On the same table, you may have found food sanitation, culinary therapy, organic slow food, and fair-trade plates. Perhaps you’ve seen a skit on Zika and climate change. If you have, share it with us as an example of arts in environmental health.

Maybe you’re wondering what would happen if we reversed the words in the names of the four interdisciplinary fields. What would “health in arts” encompass? A diseased organ in a painting? A real heartbeat in a piece of music?

[head-spinning semantic overload … &%zap^#! … actually seeing angels on pinhead]

***

In layout and content, the Bamboo Pen has come a long way since Setting Themes.

Based on readers’ responses to my first twenty posts (sadly, I lost my social shares in the redesign), I’ve decided to concentrate on writing reviews of events, including exhibits, and features about people who—for the greater good—devote their time to mixing and matching health, environment, and the arts. Feel free to send me their names.

For now, let my post be a gift to those of you—scientists, artists, health workers—who are too busy discovering, creating, and healing to categorize your work intentionally or worry about definitions. Caring is what all four interdisciplinary fields (and the broad areas of health, environment, and the arts) have most in common.

As for me, I’m tuckered out from defining what you do. I think I’ve earned a green art–wrapped, mood-enhancing, artisanal, socially responsible, and environmentally sustainable chocolate bar. Every bit of one—or two!

If you need me for writing, editing, or programs, I’ll be at my desk. I might be interviewing a “wrapper,” urrrr … “rapper” who just composed a song on solar cookers.

[cooked]

Environmental Artist, Activism Protect Nature

Patterson Clark’s least favorite invasive plant is Japanese stilt grass. That’s because he hasn’t figured out how to use it in his art. Boiling it yields weak brown ink. Its fibers don’t make for strong paper. It’s not even good for fuel. “It got over here as packing material. If that’s your best use, you’re a pretty sorry little plant,” he said wryly.

I met Clark, a hyper-local plant patriot and environmental artist, over coffee, a brown brew whose use no one questions. American country music played in the background as he spoke about his mission to rid the world—at least the wooded area around his studio—of alien weeds. With authority and training from the National Park Service, he frees native species by harvesting invasive plants in a section of Washington, DC’s Rock Creek Park. Then he makes art out of them.

By day, Clark creates science graphics for the Washington Post. So think Clark Kent and Superman—for nature. Even their names are half the same.

Back in Arkansas, our Clark majored in biology, a broader field than his father’s botany. After studying conceptual art and painting as a graduate student at the California Institute of the Arts, he got caught up in the art of journalism.

“Visuals for newspapers must relate to a horizontal demographic. They have to appeal to people from a lot of different backgrounds. Fine art is oriented in the opposite direction. It has more of a vertical appeal, with a narrow audience, generally with an education in art. So I was won over by the egalitarian pursuit of journalism and focused my energies on that.” For a good while, he did op-ed illustrations for the Arkansas Gazette and Miami Herald. Until recently, he wrote the Urban Jungle column for the Post.

His superhero cape, or smock, was thus infused with environmental and social justice. By now, it’s well stained with the blood, or sap, of enemy plants.

Fine Invasive Art

Unlike stilt grass, most invasive species don’t flummox Clark. His Web site, Alienweeds, features not only finished pieces, but also the botany, chemistry, and environmental activism behind his art. Some of it’s quite complicated. For pigments, there’s Amur, or bush, honeysuckle, which yields turquoise, and leatherleaf Mahonia, which makes fluorescent yellow. To get purple, he crushes Asiatic dayflower, whose beautiful blue petals burst forth at dawn.

Out of white mulberry trees, Clark makes a bright, tough paper, perfect for prints. Paper mulberry, traditionally used in Japanese washi, is easier to harvest, but the pulp dries into a cream color, isn’t as brilliant as the stock he gets from its cousin. Armed with bamboo pens, porcelain-berry brushes, Norway-maple woodblocks, and other homemade tools, Clark minted “weed currency” out of his inks and papers. He determined the denominations by the number of invasive plants in each.

For carving, a favorite is Callery pear, whose blooms whiten the margins of highways come spring. Its well-known hybrid, the Bradford pear, hardly stayed sterile. Look nearly everywhere in forty-two U.S. states, and you’ll find Ailanthus, the so-called Tree of Heaven, rightly dubbed the “stink tree.” It contains a ton of water and tends to warp, check, and cup. But once its honey-colored wood stabilizes, Clark can plane and carve it to reveal its brown grain. Like Irish ivy (not to be confused with English ivy), boiling it drives him from the house for the funk.

Bad Plants

Both species are evil-smelling, evil-doing varmints of the plant kingdom—according to most environmentalists. And we humans are in part responsible for the infestations. Yes, every species has a use and, certainly, a right to exist, somewhere. Many are quite attractive. But what seems like a good green introduction in one era proves disastrous later on.

Take Ailanthus again: American botanists found it standing tall on Chinese temple grounds, alone, it turned out, because its roots released a noxious chemical that retarded the growth of surrounding plants. Ditto here, where, unlike most plants, it thrives on road salt and knocks out every native around it. If you whack back its branches, even its young trunk—bam—it comes back with a vengeance. Never mind all the seeds.

Invasive plants breed like rabbits. They spread quickly, often with little interference from hungry animals and diseases. Their weaponry includes runners and rhizomes and countless survivalist seeds with myriad methods for dispersal. Although native animals prefer to dine on indigenous species, they do eat invasives and poop the pips.

Birds drop them, while mammals amble about with pods stuck to their feet and fur. Kernels wedge in our shoes and dangle from our tractor blades. They muck up our mulch. Once mature, the invaders degrade ecosystems by competing with native plants for resources and pollinators. Rare species disappear. In no time, diverse landscapes turn into manic monocultures.

Clark removes the troublemakers. “My first act is always one of environmental restoration.” Usually, other non-natives grow in the spaces he frees, but some local wildflowers will take down stilt grass, unless deer devour them first. The Park Service has its own invasive-plant treatment programs. He can’t interfere by, say, sowing native seeds.

Invasives Anyone?

Like other environmentalists, Clark doesn’t favor using gasoline-powered tools and herbicides to manage the bad guys. “There’s a fellow in North Carolina who uses the Boer goat, a meat goat. He takes them into kudzu patches, and they fatten themselves up on the vine. They love it. He just keeps hammering with the goats until he exhausts the kudzu, without using a lot of poison or disrupting the ground. Why not provide food for people?” Japanese, who can claim kudzu as their own, and, increasingly, Americans in the Southeast make jellies, tea, even noodles from it.

Clark is an invasivore, too. He eats the grape-like, blue berries of leatherleaf Mahonia, which are loaded with vitamin C. Then there are the raspberry-ish wineberries, sold at posh farmers’ markets. Mulberries, the dark ones with native red genes, are tasty. They’re juicier than pure white mulberries but not as sweet, according to Clark. Garlic mustard, before it bolts, cooks into a delicious winter green. Pair it with a slab of invasive feral hog, deer, or Canada goose—if you’re into meat. In that case, best to slug some Mahonia juice first: like other members of its family, it contains berberine, an antimicrobial.

Educational Outreach

When hunting down art supplies (or foodstuffs), dog walkers and park goers sometimes spot Clark. He estimates that one out of ten people asks him what he’s doing. “I tell them what I’m up to. Mainly, they give me a wide berth. Dogs get weirded out by me and start barking. So people finally come over and put their dog on a leash. Sometimes they’re curious.” More receptive are the Weed Warriors, gardeners, scientific and botanical illustrators, environmentalists, and art and science students to whom he speaks regularly. Nurserymen, still intent on selling homeowners some of the nasties, haven’t asked him to share.

Right now, he’s working on a calendar for the American Printing History Association. He’s producing 136 sheets of paper for the month of May and designing an image to print with verse by his sister, a poet. In September, he’ll take off for SUNY/Fredonia to deliver a series of lectures on art and invasives.

Unlike Clark Kent, though, Patterson Clark rarely flies. Environmental artists and activists like him don’t like fossil fuels. But they do drink caffeine. So powered by an Americano with extra shots, he bade me goodbye to return to his day job. Like Superman, he was ready to save the forest floor with his handsaw, to make art from the vanquished.

Crochet Coral Reef Sends Woolen Warning

Before me lay a room-high mound of warm-woolen fuzzies and lanolin-puffing fringees in blues and greens, reds and golds, white-beiges and browns. Mesmerized, my inner child waited for Dr. Seuss’s Cat in the Hat to pop out to tell the story of the Crochet Coral Reef, an international project started in 2005 by the Los Angeles–based Institute for Figuring. Its founders, Margaret and Christine Wertheim, knew that the Great Barrier Reef of their native Australia was in bad shape. They called for help.  Artists responded.  Together, they crocheted a reef that grew faster than corals ever did, even before climate change.

I saw the reef in 2011 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. The show brightened an otherwise dim hall near museum cases about living corals. The juxtaposition drove home the relevance of the arts to environmental issues and inspired me to learn more about corals, global warming, and ocean pollution. I had just the reaction the reef’s creators and museum’s curators planned. In fact, based on my visit, I decided to blog on where health, environment, and the arts meet, my tagline.

Crochet is a “feminine art.” So when the reef set out for Washington, DC, four homeless women of N Street Village joined 200 local crocheters to spawn baby corals for the 4,000-piece reef. Women combating poverty and ill health came to the aid of embattled corals through art. With their hooks, they crocheted model hyperbolas, the shapes corals take that have fascinated mathematicians for centuries. While the curvy, yet straight linear forms grew so did the bonds between threatened human artists and corals, between land and sea creatures.

As the women and exhibit goers learned, excess atmospheric carbon, water pollution, destructive fishing, coastal development, coral mining, and careless tourism have already killed 20 percent of the world’s reefs. Coral reefs are the largest biological structures on Earth; the Great Barrier Reef is visible from outer space. But reefs grow slowly. Most are 5,000 to 10,000 years old. They harbor 25 percent of all marine life and provide food, income, coastal protection, and the ingredients of life-saving medicines for millions of people. With the rise in temperatures and release of carbon, oceans are becoming acidic enough to kill reefs. One colony of the Crochet Coral Reef is white and beige to represent bleached, skeletonized corals. Another is full of human detritus—beer tabs, plastic bags, and cassette tape.

Depressing as the state of the world’s corals is, the Crochet Coral Reef is probably the most effective and delightful means of delivering an environmental message imaginable. If only the Cat in the Hat’s VOOM would emerge from all the colorful yarn to clean up the mess we, the Little Cats, have made of the ancient reefs!