Augusta Sparks Farnum is a fifth-generation photographer and an online Master of Arts in Arts in Medicine student at the UF Center for Arts in Medicine. As a response to feelings of uncertainty and loneliness in COVID-19 patients, Farnum partnered with Providence St. Mary Medical Center to provide Arts in Health: First Aid Art Kits, a kit of art materials accompanied with hospital messaging and artist-made prompts and coloring pages, supported by a website with artist-made facilitation videos. Providence St. Mary Medical Center delivered the kits to those in self-isolation and quarantine, caretakers, patients in the hospital, long-term facilities, and local shelters in Farnum's home community of Walla Walla, Washington.
Caroline: How did you get into arts in medicine?
Augusta: I’m an artist and I have been my whole life. I was looking for a way to change my life about two years ago. Last summer I Googled “arts in health” and found the online graduate program at UF. I applied last fall and began in January in the Arts in Medicine Certificate program.
I have a big belief that art has a visceral effect on your body and on your mind. I was trying to understand the intellectual side of it—the reasoning, the biology. That paired with the fact that both of my parents are artists, and I was brought up in a very artistic way and how that affected me as a person.
My father was the first man to have a hand transplant. That came after several visits and working through hospitals in Boston in the 70s and the 80s. There really wasn’t any art in the hospital. There was a lot of TV. My father made a video of his grandmother’s photographic study of Henry David Thoreau. She captured all of the images referenced in his journals while they still existed. It is a study of the surrounding topography, landscape and towns of Boston.
Caroline: How has the UF Center for Arts in Medicine been influential to you?
Augusta: I have a lot of life experience and information that I already know, but the master’s program is giving me reason for why I do what I do. Why it’s all coming together.
The program gave me the permission to sit for 30 or 40 hours a week reading and writing papers on what other people have done and why it matters and how it works. UF is the only grad school in the country with this program. I could have gotten an MFA. I chose arts in medicine instead.
Caroline: What led you to create the art kits?
Augusta: One, obviously the reading I was doing and who I was interacting with. Two, I found a nonprofit called Carnegie Picture Lab because there was no school art in the elementary schools here. So, several years ago, I brought in an art history program that was only in second grade and turned it into a K through 5th programming system.
I’d also been photographing women that weren’t being seen in our community. I was really reckoning with the conversation around loneliness that already exists in society, which is an epidemic on its own account.
All these things came together for me and I kept thinking, people are going to be in self-isolation, and they’re already dealing with loneliness and not being seen. You throw in the fear of a virus or society or losing your job. What can we do to mitigate that? They can’t go do some of the other things that they did for self-care, like go to the gym. What can they do sitting in their chair or in their hospital bed?
If you break down all the ideas of what I was doing, nothing is new. It’s just that I’m delivering it to the person.
Caroline: What are some of the prompts and different supplies you have included in the kits?
Augusta: I believe heavily in the eco-psychology of where you are. The idea that where you are affects so many things. The balance of the program is between the patient and the mastery of the local artists. A local understands the topography, utilizing their knowledge when building the prompts. “Hey, I know how the light feels like here. Let me remind you of where you are. Let’s ground into where we are. Let’s acknowledge that.” I’m interested in acknowledging what exists within the human already, whether they’re creative or not and sort of expanding them as if they’re like a Mary Poppins carpet bag.
To talk about the materials, I spent a huge amount of energy just collecting as much as I could and then literally breaking it down. The program has a supplies list that reflects the different versions of creativity in the prompts: writing, drawing, color, collage. The materials are presented in an unprecious way, so that they are accessible. The gift, as if pulled from an artist's studio, says, “Here, go make something."
I know what it feels like to start doing a project where you just lose time and you lose yourself. It’s not about yourself. You’re just like in this space, but that can happen from doing really good math, or music, or dancing. Anything that takes you up and out of yourself. That’s what I’m trying to do. Arts in Health: First Aid Art Kits is not therapy. It is just another tool.
Do you know what it feels like to do a project where you just lose time and you lose yourself? It’s no longer about you or your diagnosis or your problems? It can happen within multiple forms of deep concentration—for example, math, sports, music, or dancing. This is what Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow theory refers to, suspending time and self. Anything that takes you up and out of yourself. That’s what I’m trying to do. Arts in Health: First Aid Art Kits is not therapy. It is another health care or self-care tool that has a by-product of wellbeing.
Caroline: How do you see this work continuing as we move forward, past the current epidemic?
Augusta: My work right now is to understand the framework. This summer a Mellon grant via Whitman College funded an impact study led by students from Whitman College. Subsequently, with the support of Jill Sonke’s Interdisciplinary Research Lab, an IRB at Whitman College has been approved. In partnership with Providence St. Mary Medical Center’s Population Health, the Walla Walla Health Department, the team has begun a multi-method research project called Arts in Health: First Aid Art Kits A Prospective Study for COVID-19 Positive Patients, and Caregiver “Impression” interviews. The goal is to add to the growing empirical evidence in support of arts in medicine. If it becomes evidence-based programing, there is more potential for funding and policy change.
Caroline: How has this project been received in your community?
Augusta: This community has this weird thing that has been joked about and called the “Walla Walla Way”. People come up with an idea, like a nonprofit, and they go for it. Then everybody kind of pitches in and see if it will go. Lots of projects have been started here. I don’t think I remember living anywhere else that it was so easy to start something like this.
Learn more about the Center for Arts in Medicine online graduate programs and undergraduate certificates.
To discover more about Augusta's work, visit ArtWalla's website.