Play with Your Food! (And Other Ways Artists Help with Health)

In 2013, Springboard for the Arts launched the Artist Organizers (AOs) pilot program as part of Irrigate’s artist-led community development. Supported by the Surdna Foundation, the pilot planted artists in community-invested organizations to contribute their creative skills to make change and strengthen vibrant places. This is a series of case studies of those AO partnerships. Get the Irrigate toolkit here.

Heather Zinger, a Chicago native, was an artist in residence at the Roger Maris Cancer Center in Fargo, North Dakota, helping chemotherapy patients make art, helping them stay connected to parts of themselves that weren’t ill. And then the grant that supported her ran out.

“I thought I would move, just go back to Chicago,” she says. “But then the Artist Organizer job turned up.”

Zinger applied, mainly out of curiosity, thinking she might turn down the job if she got it. But one of the organizations that was interested in her was PartnerSHIP 4 Health (PS4H), a public-health nonprofit headquartered in Moorhead, Minnesota.

“What they wanted was so in line with what I had been doing – the intersection of art and health – that when they offered me the job, I took it,” she says.

Zinger connected with PS4H, which serves four counties in western Minnesota: Becker, Clay, Otter Tail, and Wilkin. The organization has a broad mandate to promote active lifestyles (including biking), healthy eating, smoking cessation, health information in schools and at work, preventive health care, and other best practices for a healthy life.

Prepare to Work with Cultural Differences

Zinger is a photographer and multidisciplinary artist whose interest in health and health care has expressed itself not only in her work at the Roger Maris Center, but in a residency with the Livestrong Foundation, a support organization for cancer patients, and a position as an art teacher for people with traumatic brain injury at the HeartSprings Community Healing Center, a Fargo-based nonprofit focused on teaching and practicing holistic medicine.

She’s also created and documented performances centered on the lives of people living with chronic disease. When she lived in Portland, Oregon, for example, she created the EndureMS Project, a tribute to her older sister, Elizabeth, who lives with multiple sclerosis. Zinger tied herself to a human skeleton for a week and went about her daily business, which included fundraising work for MS research.

Zinger is also more experienced in project management than many artists. She has managed a restaurant and worked in a software startup and other office environments. “So I had a lot of functional skills going in,” she says. But she found that the geographic scale of the four-county project, and the fact that she was commuting from Fargo to the major towns in the region, made it hard for her to develop and nurture the kinds of local connections she needed to bring new art projects into conservative communities and make them stick.

The communication styles of rural western Minnesotans weren’t always easy for Zinger, an urbanite for most of her life, to understand, and she grew to feel that to truly connect with Fergus Falls, Detroit Lakes, Moorhead, or Breckenridge, “you need to live there. I really underestimated the value of living there.”

“I spent a lot of time on relationship-building while at the same time working on projects,” she adds. “And I called on Michele Anderson, who runs Springboard’s office in Fergus Falls, for a lot of help.” Once it was clear to both Zinger and the PS4H staff that she needed more freedom for her work, she returned to her home base in Fargo and began planning how to carry out the proposals that she was developing with PS4H.

To Build Interest, Have Fun!

These conflicts aside, Zinger created engaging, offbeat projects that “took” with local citizens and pleased her PS4H colleagues. She was to engage different institutions and communities in the counties that the nonprofit serves: daycare centers, schools, libraries, health-equity organizations serving marginalized people,  “with the intention of promoting healthy behavior by using art,” she says. “The idea was that I would visit these places over a couple of months, pick out a few projects, and put them in place.”

The first of these was “You Look Funny: The Delight in Fruits and Vegetables,” inspired, Zinger says, by the Los Angeles-based collective Fallen Fruit, who make art with fruit and veg. Zinger took images of Fergus Falls seventh-graders interacting in funny ways with the healthy foods, and the kids shot their own light-hearted videos explaining the benefits of bananas, apples, broccoli, and other veggies.

Probably the most effective of Zinger’s events, though, are the ones she set up to celebrate Screen-Free Week (May 5-11, 2013) in the four counties. Screen-Free Week is an annual observance, created by the Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, in which local organizers around the country create events intended to encourage people to turn away from computer, TV, and smartphone screens and spend serious face-to-face time with family and friends.

Among the events that Zinger created in her bailiwick was a cardboard-robot-making workshop in Moorhead, followed a couple of days later by a performance of her playlet “You Won’t Be Needed in the Future,” starring local volunteers in their robot costumes. Zinger wrote “You Won’t Be Needed,” which plays with the idea of a future in which humans prefer robot-contact to the human variety, when she lived in Portland.

And then there was “Come Be Bored with Me,” in which Zinger simply sat in a chair in public areas in Moorhead, Fergus Falls, Detroit Lakes, and Breckenridge (the county seat of Wilkin County). There was another chair next to her, and a sign inviting passersby to sit wordlessly with her, enjoying the screenless boredom.

Reaction to this very unusual, very quiet initiative varied from town to town, Zinger says. “In Fergus Falls, people simply came, and sat, and laughed. In Detroit Lakes, they were a lot more demonstrative – they would drive by, honking and yelling. In Moorhead, I was in front of a coffee shop, and a very nice lady wanted to give me cupcakes.”

On a more serious note, Zinger worked with libraries to promote the reading of Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other and organized a forum with local academics to discuss the book’s propositions.

Zinger brought Twin Cities-based artists to western Minnesota, including the Kairos Alive dance troupe, a multi-generational ensemble that gave performances and workshops. And she called on aerosol artist Peyton Russell, cofounder of the Minneapolis hip-hop art-and- education center Juxtaposition Arts, to help local kids decorate four bike trailers that PartnerSHIP 4 Health donated to local schools.

Create Reasonable Scope

“Artists bring unique perspectives,” says Jason Bergstrand, manager and communications head for PS4H, who was Zinger’s immediate supervisor. “And Heather, with her creative outsider’s point of view, drew out potentials, possibilities in projects that we probably wouldn’t have seen on our own.”

He cites the “Delight in Fruits and Vegetables” project. “Kids love phones, cameras, and videos and seeing themselves on camera,” he says. “When our organization talks about healthy eating, we’re usually very serious! But this was an approach to healthy eating that brought in fun and humor.”

And Patrick Hollister, the nonprofit’s Active Living Planner and the man who first connected PS4H with Springboard, agrees that Zinger brought a fresh angle of vision. “Like a lot of public health organizations, PS4H tells people to be more active,” he says. “Now, the computer and the television are the two major things that contribute to a sedentary lifestyle. But I think that without Heather and the Screen-Free Week, we probably never would have thought to take on those two devices directly.”

The extreme time and space demands of Zinger’s AO mandate convinced her that it’s wise to be very deliberate in planning what Artist Organizers are to do, limiting the scope of projects and focusing them, and making sure that expectations are clear from the beginning.

Bergstrand echoes the concern: “Communication is absolutely key,” he says. “Artists want and need a lot of freedom, but it’s crucial that the organization they’re working with be clear on the expectations and missions of each project, for the sake of both sides.”

As for Zinger, she feels that her experience taught her a great deal about finding the appropriate scope and scale for projects that must be done in a limited time frame. “Serving all the different constituencies in all the different towns simply made the project too big,” she says. “If I had to do it again, I would work on a smaller scale. And to make the things I did repeatable and sustainable,” she says, “would take five years, not one.

“But after all, this was the first year for the AO’s, a pilot project. As they learn how these things go, I’m sure everybody involved will bring the artists in for brainstorming sessions early on, plan the year out carefully, and shift when they need to shift.”