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Wimbley's work with Creative Corp featured in Sacramento News & Review: How arts in the Sacramento region can improve our health .

Thank you to the folks at Sacramento News & Review, Solving Sacramento, the Hart Senior Center, and Helen Harlan for the inclusion. Expert from How arts in the Sacramento region can improve our health by Helen Harlan in Sacramento News &Review May 31, 2024.

Arlene Nakamura, 76, likes to focus on “the silly, funny stuff” of aging, bringing humor to her writing on senior life. Photograph by Andri Tambunan

It’s 2 p.m. on a Tuesday at Ethel MacLeod Hart Senior Center in Marshall Park in Midtown Sacramento. Inside a room they call Redwood West, almost two dozen seniors sit in a roundtable where they will remain for the next hour and a half. Jessica Wimbley, a local artist, sits with them. She is the youngest person here by decades and is present to guide, engage and participate in the class.

This is the Hart Center’s weekly “Poetry Writing Group,” one of many free arts classes they offer to the public. The center is run by the City of Sacramento and, like all the programming the center has to offer, the group aims to provide a place to socialize and build community for people over 50. 

Wimbley joined the poetry group in February as part of her community outreach work with the Capital Region Creative Corps Program. She is one of five artists in the Creative Corps selected to serve for up to one year in various city departments, like The Hart Center.

Olga Blu Gene Brown, who everyone calls “Blu,” 76, facilitates the group and has been coming for 14 years. She says the group has helped with her mental health struggles. “It’s a major, major plus,” she says. “My husband recently passed away. The last year and a half have been really hard for me. But by writing, and expressing myself through poetry, it’s helped me a lot with my anxiety and depression.”

Arlene Nakamura, 76, says she often uses the group to write about humor in senior issues. “There are a lot of sentiments that come with aging,” Nakamura says with a smile. “I kind of focus on the silly, funny stuff.” 

Groups like the one Brown and Nakamura are part of illustrate the correlation of a quickly growing topic: arts and public health. While the center, its programming and those who carry it out are not considered prescribed treatment for any health condition, anecdotal evidence like what Brown and Nakamura share point to an undeniable link between the two, suggesting that access to the arts can promote well-being. 

Olga Blu Gene Brown, who is known as “Blu,” says the group has helped her cope with her mental health struggles. Photograph by Andri Tambunan

A University of Florida College of the Arts Center for Arts in Medicine study published earlier this year found evidence to support this link. The study, “Arts & Culture in Public Health, An Evidence-Based Framework,” is accepted by some experts in the arts and public health conversation as a valuable go-to for where the two intersect and how that intersection can boost a community’s overall health. 

According to the framework, by offering arts and enrichment classes in a public space, the Hart Center should indeed be seeing positive results in participants in areas of health. Mechanisms outlined in the framework like “Expression & Being Heard,” result in the creation of a safe, inclusive and engaging space, potentially producing three positive, evidence-based outcomes.

Janeen Thorpe, the Hart Center’s director, says they are not actively tracking data on the mental and physical benefits members see from their classes. “But that’s a really good idea,” Thorpe says. “I think I do that on a very informal level. I want to know that the folks are benefitting.”

The Hart Center, founded in 1961, is a small, local example of the bigger, national conversation around arts and public health. And it’s a conversation of great value to many in Sacramento’s art and public works community. 

Melissa Cirone, the City of Sacramento’s Office of Arts and Culture program manager, is a big fan of the topic and the UF framework. 

“Personally, I think we’ve entered a sort of perfect storm where the research is starting to catch up with the work that’s already being done in the field,” Cirone says. “It’s probably been happening for as long as the arts have been happening in the world. But now, we’re starting to put the pieces together. I’m sure there are practitioners out there who are looking for alternatives for patients who have pain due to neurological issues, who are suffering from depression, and there’s not been a lot for them to offer through traditional medicine.” 

Wimbley is familiar with the connection between the two sectors, too. She was one of 20 California artists who partnered with the state for the 2021 “Your Actions Save Lives” campaign, which featured artwork with public health messages to stop the spread of COVID. 

According to Wimbley, the arts and public health conversation is valuable because it takes a holistic approach to looking at different forms of care. 

“You’re not just looking at people physically, you’re looking at them as a whole person, you’re looking at the ecosystems that they are existing in.,” Wimbley says, adding that she thinks artists are a valuable addition to a health space. “Artists deal with complex issues. We take the time contemplating these issues and having different perspectives about them and figuring out different ways to emote, express, distill, interrogate, through our artworks.”

Wimbley’s idea of a person as an ecosystem might stand in for another big concept in the conversation: equity and the Social Determinants of Health (SDOH), which are widely regarded as non-medical factors that contribute to a person’s health and are being utilized in arts and public health programs more and more. There are over a dozen SDOH. Some examples include access to education, job opportunities, clean water, and the absence of racism and discrimination. 

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