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Arts for Hearts: Helping heart health through painting

Combating heart disease among Black women in Richmond’s communities is the goal of clinical trial events.

Woman painting a canvas while wearing a face mask

By Jenna DeSteph


Jowarnise Caston, a local artist and painting instructor, mixes together blue, red and white to paint a sky on the canvas in front of her. A purple sky is the mood she’s in, so she demonstrates how to paint it. Women sitting at the tables follow her instructions, but with blues and oranges as smooth jazz plays in the background. This may seem like an art class, but it’s actually a community clinical trial called Arts for Hearts. 


Held at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Health Hub at 25th, Arts for Hearts is an event series and clinical trial that Anika L. Hines, Ph.D., an assistant professor and researcher in the Department of Health Behavior and Policy at the VCU School of Medicine, is doing to combat heart disease among Black women in Richmond’s communities. According to the American Heart Association, 40% of non-Hispanic Blacks have high blood pressure, and 49% of women 20 and older have heart disease. 


Hines wants to explore factors that could be changed or adjusted that might decrease the women’s risk for heart disease and help lower their blood pressure, as well as help educate them on how to take their own blood pressure and advocate for themselves in a medical setting. 


The sessions start with getting their blood pressure taken as a baseline, talking about their levels of stress and depression, and then the women begin a series of activities and discussions. From there, participants complete a 45-minute painting session where the goal is self-expression. Women are encouraged to follow a basic theme, expressing the way they feel about that theme through colors on the canvas and techniques that an artist guides them through. At one event in May, participants were taught how to blend colors and make them lighter or darker.


The next part of the program is an educational section where participants learn things connected to their health. They learn how to properly take their blood pressure and understand the readings, how to talk to health care providers about cardiovascular health and lifestyle health choices such as exercise and nutrition. The education session is followed by another discussion that gives the women an opportunity to express their thoughts or ask questions. 


At the end of the session, women have their blood pressure taken again and discuss how they’re feeling. They are also given a blood pressure cuff and encouraged to take their own blood pressure at home and document it.


“There is a sense of camaraderie that is built among these women,” Hines said.


The discussions encourage the women to talk about their mental and physical health. In the art discussions, they are asked how they feel about their community and the world around them. Mothers and daughters take the class together, adding an element of family bonding to the sessions. 


Hines is doing the clinical trial to see if interventions such as painting work in reducing stress, depression and high blood pressure. She has been asked to continue the program in the East End community as well as in other spaces around Richmond. 


“I think it’s really important to bring more community-based activities to the East End focused on blood pressure. Hypertension is a huge issue in the East End of Richmond, as it is in many Black communities, and so I think it’s an opportunity for us to really get out there and to bring to communities activities they might want to participate in, to also lead toward more heart health education.”


For more information about the Health Hub at 25th, and to learn more about its programs, visit https://community.vcu.edu/health-hub

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