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Healthcare unplugged: O+ Festival trades care for art

By GERRY HARRINGTON   |   Oct. 17, 2013 at 11:26 AM
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KINGSTON, N.Y., Oct. 17 (UPI) -- Ninety healthcare practitioners provided medical, dental, chiropractic and other health therapies to nearly 200 people in New York's Hudson Valley for a song.

Or to witness a dance, a painting, a comedy routine, a sculpture, a film screening or any of more than 125 performing and visual arts presentations at the fourth annual O+ Festival.

Named for the O-positive blood type, the Columbus Day weekend event in Kingston, 90 miles north of New York City, let artists exchange works and performances for checkups, back adjustments, dental fillings, eye exams, physical therapy, mental-health evaluations, nutritional counseling and other types of health and wellness services.

"It's basically a barter," said O+ co-founder Joe Concra, an oil painter. "We're exchanging the art of medicine for the value of art."

"We're telling artists and musicians, 'We value you so much that in exchange for your talent, we're giving you access to care.' We're valuing everyone together -- the doctors, musicians and the artists -- for their contributions to the community, and by doing that, you're breaking down these walls," he said.

The volunteer-run festival "creates a system where everyone is valued for their unique contribution, rather than through monetary exchange," Denise Orzo, an encaustic painter and doula who coordinated the O+ art committee, told United Press International.

Festival participants also learned about the Affordable Care Act's new health insurance exchanges through the non-profit Actors Fund and the Recording Academy's MusiCares Foundation, both of which participated in the O+ public health expo.

"People should know about the Affordable Care Act," Concra told UPI. "If they can afford to sign up for the exchange, they should do that. But as a festival we want to show people we're here for each other. We want people to have access to wellness."

"Keeping myself well is the only insurance I have," Orzo said.

A second O+ Festival is to debut in San Francisco's Lower Haight and Mission Creek neighborhoods Nov. 15-17.

At least six other cities have expressed "solid interest," Concra told UPI, including Nashville; Portland, Ore.; Boulder, Colo., and Easton, Pa.

"A basic tenet of O+ is that music and arts are undervalued," said Dr. Art Chandler, a physician at Columbia Memorial Hospital in nearby Hudson, N.Y.

"Without arts and music, your culture just dies," he said.

Chandler is one of the original five artist and doctor friends who started the festival in 2010. He now annually assembles the team that staffs and dispenses care at the festival's "pop-up clinic" in the ballroom of the century-old Tudor-style Kirkland Hotel.

Chandler and other doctors and complementary care providers are exploring the viability of opening a year-round O+ clinic in the city's same historic Stockade District where the festival takes place.

"It would almost be a community center, with an art gallery in the front, a performance space -- a place where people could come together and really try to contribute to each other's lives, using whatever we have in our arsenal, whether it's arts or medicine," he told UPI.

The clinic would function on a barter system like the festival, with artists paying for health and wellness services by fulfilling a "community wish list" that's envisioned to include such things as offering and hanging artwork in a hospital emergency room, providing art and music therapy classes, "doing a gig" or working in a community garden, Chandler said.

"This represents the collusion of arts and medicine, with payments benefiting the community first and the clinic," he said.

This year's festival started with a costume parade with dancers, artists, live bands and other musical and performing acts.

Kingston Mayor Shayne Gallo was the grand marshal in the back of a reclaimed off-white antique pickup truck made of mostly GMC and International Harvester parts salvaged from 1937 and 1940. Giant dancing skeleton puppets on loan from New York City's Village Halloween Parade led the march.

The festival continued in bars, restaurants, storefronts, offices, a microbrewery, a theater, a school and a church, as well as on the city's streets, which were transformed into a living gallery, with paste-ups, sculptures, light installations and performance art.

Among the participating painters and sculptors was Baltimore street artist Gaia, who created a six-story mural of Greek goddess Artemis on the brick wall backside of a 19th century vaudeville theater.

The mural shows the Corinthian crown-wearing goddess emerging from a limestone quarry and the New York City skyline on the horizon.

Limestone from quarries near Kingston was used in the construction of many 19th and early 20th century New York City buildings, as well as the foundation of the Brooklyn Bridge and the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.

In exchange for his artwork, Gaia saw a doctor and got a dental treatment, Concra told UPI.

"And his mural was left for the community," Concra said.

Musical acts included British space-rock band Spiritualized; New York duo Buke and Gase, known for their homemade instruments; local lyrical songwriter-poet Simone Felice, a founder of the folk rock/country rock group the Felice Brothers, and "Mountain Motown" singer-songwriter-violinist-guitarist Simi Stone and her all-star band.

Public admission to all indoor events was $25.

"It was extraordinary," Stone told UPI of the event. "I found it to be so beautiful, all these artists and musicians and visionary people coming together."

Stone saw "an incredible dentist" who gave her "one of the greatest dental experiences I've ever had," she said.

English bassist and singer-songwriter Sara Lee, who performed with Stone, got a massage and Reiki treatment while on a break from coordinating the free green room cafeteria for the weekend's artists and volunteers.

The treatments "completely rejuvenated me," said Lee, notable for having performed with the post-punk band Gang of Four as well as the B-52s, Ani DiFranco and Indigo Girls.

"I'm in awe of all the work that the O+ people do," she told UPI.

Entry to the festival was competitive, particularly for musicians. This year, 235 bands vied for 40 music slots and 96 artists applied for 40 visual-arts spaces, Concra said.

Artists were chosen for their work quality rather than their medical needs, he said.

Once accepted, artists submitted a list of treatments they would like to receive.

Chandler said the volunteer medical staff put in cumulatively more than 750 hours during the weekend, providing health, dental and wellness services valued at more than $95,000.

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