"The Art of Queer Health Sciences" communicates empathy, not just data


The Art of Queer Health Sciences

Clockwise from upper left: Tanaka Chavanduka project manager at the University of Michigan Center for Sexuality and Health Disparities and curator of The Art of Queer Health Sciences poses in front of Cahoots; Shalin Berman, University of Michigan Stamps School of Art & Design student, poses with their art at Bløm Meadworks; Jenna John, a dual major in art and design and ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Michigan, and Coyne Gatto, University of Michigan Stamps School of Art & Design student, poses in front of their works at Zingerman's Greyline. The exhibition is on view at several downtown Ann Arbor businesses through the first week of May and at queeringart.com. Photos by Eric Bronson/Michigan Photography.

We sat at a table outside Vinology just as a 50-degree cold rain picked up. It was strong enough to send a chill but not blowing sideways enough to chase off two people determined to do something outside of our house even in a less-than-ideal environment where gray was the primary color.

That's when a shock of green veins caught my eye in Vinology's window.

Then the blue-purple river, then yellow and orange and red dashes.

Small splashes of brightness in an otherwise dull landscape.

But it wasn't until I looked up Noelani Conahan's painting later that I learned about the research by Dr. Michelle Munro-Kramer that inspired it:

This study used a mixed methods design to create and evaluate an evidence-based tool to illustrate different aspects of power and control unique to diverse college students at three affiliated Midwestern universities. In Phase I, we conducted interviews with students (n=33) and staff (n=10) to explore power and control tactics utilized on college campuses. Content analysis revealed 13 categories of tactics, including some unique to college-age individuals (e.g., academic abuse). Students described an interconnected and overlapping structure resulting in a tool that depicts the tactics as puzzle pieces nested within a socioecological framework. In Phase II, we used cognitive interviews (n=20) to elicit additional feedback, which resulted in minor modifications. In Phase III we used a quasi-experimental design to assess for changes in knowledge and attitudes after incoming college students (n=250) had the opportunity to interact with the tool. Survey results found 65.6% of participants had ever experienced IPV, with 47.6% of participants experiencing it within the last year.

There are pieces inspired by similar types of research at Cahoots, Abracadabra, Vault of Midnight, Thrive Juicery, Avalon Cafe, Bløm Meadworks, and Zingerman's Greyline in Ann Arbor, all part of The Art of Queer Health Sciences, curated by Tanaka Chavanduka, project manager at the University of Michigan Center for Sexuality and Health Disparities.

But you need not be a scientist to appreciate the art—though it probably helps with the captions if I do say so my thick-brained self.

Noelani Conahan's piece in The Art of Queer Health Sciences

A painting at Vinology by Noelani Conahan based on research by Dr. Michelle Munro-Kramer.

In an article published by Michigan News, Tanaka Chavanduka said he was inspired to explore different ways to communicate health information after going to Washington, D.C., for a national conference on HIV and visiting the National Portrait Gallery and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

"I'm often exposed to the emotions, sadness and healing behind the numbers—and my experience on this trip made it clear that traditional ways of sharing research aren't designed to express emotion in the same way art is," said Chavanduka, project manager at the University of Michigan Center for Sexuality and Health Disparities.

"If our work as researchers took up space in the same way art does, that could help the people we work with feel seen. We expect communities to be vulnerable with us when participating in research, so why not also create a pipeline for creatives who exist in those communities to process that vulnerability and share it in a way that's respectful, disarming and accessible?"

This question inspired him to organize a new community art exhibition, which was funded by the first round of grants from the Arts Initiative with the goal to explore what happens when science prioritizes empathy. In addition to highlighting queer experiences, his goal was to help individuals rethink how art can transform communities, generate healing and share knowledge.

The resulting exhibition, The Art of Queer Health Sciences, was funded by the U-M Arts Initiative and is on view on the windows of the aforementioned downtown Ann Arbor businesses until May 5. The pieces in the exhibit are aimed at communicating research from the Center for Sexuality and Health Disparities, which focuses on improving sexual and reproductive health as well as reducing health disparities in sexual and gender minorities.

“Traditionally, this type of research makes its way into the world via academic journals and conference presentations—so the information that is most valuable to marginalized communities doesn’t always make it to those communities,” Chavanduka said in the Michigan News article.

He worked with Renee Pitter, CSHD research programs manager and exhibition coordinator, to pick four queer-identifying student artists from the U-M Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design to create works based on research projects chosen by faculty at CSHD.

You can view the whole gallery of art created for the exhibit over at queeringart.com, or perhaps you can look up from your table on a rainy day and see a little color in the near distance.

Christopher Porter is a library technician and the editor of Pulp.