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Julie Sokolow

Julie Sokolow is a musician, writer, and filmmaker based in Pittsburgh, PA. She is the creator of the Healthy Artists documentary series, in which young creatives discuss their struggles with the American health care system.

September 26th, 2013 2:03 PM

O Positive: The Art and Medicine Exchange from NY to CA

O Positive Wristband

O Positive: The Art and Medicine Exchange from NY to CA
by Healthy Artists writer - Rachel Nagelberg

Despite Obama’s intentions to fix American health care inequality, over 45 million Americans remain uninsured. The brand new Obamacare insurance marketplace (opening Oct. 1st 2013) should fix that gruesome statistic, but many folks still worry that Obamacare’s implementation will be a far cry from universal health care. The bottom line: just because more Americans will have health insurance, it doesn’t necessarily mean they will have access to actual health care.

Artists who work freelance, part-time, adjunct, and service industry jobs are accustomed to lacking health care. In 2010, a team of artists and doctors in Kingston, NY decided to do something about it. It’s called “O+” or “O Positive” – a one-of-a-kind three-day festival where artists, musicians, and filmmakers trade their creative work for health services provided by doctors, dentists, and wellness providers.

“The energy behind the concept of bartering the medicine of art for the art of medicine was inspiring,” said Dr. Chandler, a Kingston family doctor who became the head of O+ Festival’s pop-up clinic. “There were twenty or more people at every meeting, new people from every part of the community, and it didn’t seem like we could be stopped. We had a festival in five months. It was daunting, exhilarating, impossible, irresistible, exhausting, and the most rewarding thing I have ever done.” 

The brains behind O+ Festival is MICA graduate and surrealist painter, Joe Concra. Back in 2010, Concra met Tom Cingel, a dentist who mentioned he wanted to bring his favorite band to town. Cingel said that in exchange for their music, he’d clean their teeth. Concra, envisioning Cingel’s concept operating on a systemic level, started asking folks across the Kingston medical and arts communities if they would consider swapping their skills.

The overwhelmingly positive feedback of Concra’s inquiry is responsible for the O + Festival we see today – a massive, annual three-day festival featuring pop-up clinics amid live music performances, site-specific installations, and film screenings. Participants get direct access to routine physicals, massages, acupuncture, dental fillings, nutritional counseling, and more. The same visual artists who receive health services through the festival, give back by creating wheat-pasted and hand-painted murals around the town.

“A large part of our mission is to help develop our community by using existing, unused storefronts and buildings as venues,” said Concra. “We want to expose people to the neighborhood they live in or near to, but have overlooked.”

Since the start of O+ Festival, a significant number of young people and artists have flocked to Kingston, NY and started calling it home. The community is also witnessing the opening of new music venues and community centers, as well as new and developing scholarships available for local musicians.

“We are not about health insurance, but are about community assurance,” said Concra. “We prove that we are here for each other. Almost all of the things we provide are on the wellness side of the health equation.”

One of Concra and Dr. Chandler’s long-term plans is to establish a year-round, sliding-scale clinic in Kingston, NY. The clinic will double as a venue for music and art. Philosophically, O+ is dedicated to changing the current corporate detachment of the arts from medicine.

In Dr. Chandler’s words, it takes a “protean effort” from many organized individuals to pull off an event like O+ solely on volunteer support, donors, and fundraising. Recently, the O+ team created a step-by-step playbook for artists and activists who want to start an O+ Festival in their communities. The O+ diagnosis is spreading: this November 2013, will mark the first O+ Festival for San Francisco. There’s still time to sign up to volunteer.

“Our stance is that without the arts, the culture of our society will not survive. Also, without healthcare, the arts can’t possibly survive,” said Dr. Chandler. “To have art and healthcare on equal footing is not only legitimate, but logical and necessary.”

O+ Festival - Kingston, NY will take place from October 11th through 13th 2013. O+ Festival - San Francisco, CA will take place from November 15th through 17th 2013. Learn more about how to participate in or start an O+ Festival near you.

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