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April 16 was National Health Care Decisions Day, an initiative of The Conversation Project, which works in collaboration with the Institute for Healthcare Improvement. The intent of the day is to ” inspire, educate, and empower the public and providers about the importance of advance care planning.” In at least two events in the U.S., comics had an important role in getting people talking about their advanced care plans.
In Chicago, Life Matters Media (wonderful backstory on their beginnings here) sponsored four projects asking participants and passers-by “What does living well mean to you?” In the first, Alex Thomas, Gary Ashwal, and the rest of their Live Action Cartoonist colleagues reunited (story on their history here) in the James Thompson Center to create a 24-foot mural of images of living well. Their drawings were inspired and, in some cases, provided by people walking through the atrium of this busy hub of civic life. The four cartoonists succeeded in, as Alex described in advance of the event, “filling twenty-four 4 ft by 8 ft panels in four hours – that’s 10 min a panel!”
It was a massive undertaking that yielded spectacular results, as you can see below.
You can listen to Alex Thomas of Live Action Cartoonists and Randi Bellisomo of Life Matters Media discuss their collaboration on WBEZ, the local Chicago NPR affiliate, here. Looking back on the event, Alex Thomas wrote, “We were amazed how it all turned out in retrospect. Public engagement to create the mural was better than we could have dreamed. A lot of people really took time out of their day for some deep reflection and creative expression- pretty amazing. To have all of those diverse voices come together as a cohesive art installation – in 4 hrs – was really pretty remarkable.”
THREE other live drawing events were held in Chicago’s neighborhoods throughout the week. Life Matters Media had the entire city talking about what a good life means to them! To see photos from all these events, visit Life Matters Media’s blog post.
Across the country in San Francisco, the ReImagine Festival organized 175 events throughout the city for National Health Care Decisions Week, and comics were part of at least two of them.
In the first, an opening reception was held for “Death Panels” an exhibit of comics that deal with life-limiting illness and end-of-life at the California College of the Arts Hubbel Gallery. The exhibit featured work by Joyce Farmer (Special Exits), Aneurin Wright (Things to Do in a Retirement Home Trailer Park When You are 29 and Unemployed), Sarah Leavitt (Tangles), Christina Tran (many zines and animation), Brian Fies (Mom’s Cancer), Marissa Moss (Last Things), and MK Czerwiec (Taking Turns). In addition to these graphic novelists, New Yorker cartoonists Ben Schwartz, Whit Taylor, Emily Flake, Roz Chast also had work in the show. (Whit’s page appears above.)
A panel then discussed the roles that comics can play in end-of-life care and conversation. The panel was introduced by Mara Holt Skov, curator of the Death Panels exhibit. Panelists included (from left in the first photo below) moderator MK Czerwiec, creator of Taking Turns, Brian Fies of Mom’s Cancer, hospital chaplain, art collector, and graduate of Columbia’s Narrative Medicine program Lois Perelson-Gross, who had commissioned both Emily Flake and Whit Taylor’s work in the exhibit, and had obtained artwork for display from Roz Chast and Ben Schwartz. The panel was rounded out by Marissa Moss, creator of the graphic memoir Last Things.
The audio of the Death Panels discussion will be posted in an upcoming Graphic Medicine podcast.
This kind of work started with the intuition that, with a long history of bearing witness to stigmatized realities, as well as effective and appropriate use of humor, comics can help navigate the difficult work of discussing end-of-life care. Many more ideas are in the works for upcoming events and collaborations.