A Crusader on What Ails Artists

From the New York Times

Beer bottles clinked and indie-rock classics played overhead at a gallery opening here on a Friday night recently, as one artist after another chatted with Julie Sokolow, a filmmaker and health care advocate who has documented the Pittsburgh scene in detail.

There was Eanna Holton, who makes horror masks and props and recalled spending the last five years paying off a $10,000 surgery bill for her toddler. China Horrell, her co-worker, had a pulmonary embolism that cost more than $100,000 to treat. And Daniel McCloskey, a comic-book artist, told of being uninsured when he smashed his teeth in a bicycle accident last year, at a cost of more than $22,000.

These are among the dozens of stories Ms. Sokolow, 26, has collected over the past two years, showing how the lives of Pittsburgh artists are intertwined with their struggles over the costs of medical coverage. Her online video series, “Healthy Artists,” has chronicled the experiences of more than 40 painters, poets and musicians — talented, ambitious and often with a painful story of medical debt — and drawn the attention of national media figures like Michael Moore.

“Everyone in America has a health care story,” said Ms. Sokolow, whose project has culminated in a new 30-minute documentary, “Healthy Artists: The Movie.”

Ms. Sokolow’s films — made on a shoestring budget and uploaded to YouTube — are also a microcosm of the national health care debate as it relates to the young creative class, a group that is disproportionately underinsured. And while her survey of Pittsburgh’s scene is unusual, it is also an example of grass-roots approaches around the country, like the O+ Festival in Kingston, N.Y., and San Francisco, where performers are paid in free health care.

According to one survey last year, 43 percent of artists lacked health insurance, more than double the national average for the uninsured.

“Julie’s work unearthed what was obvious but hidden at the same time,” said Dan Byers, a curator at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh who helped judge a “Healthy Artists” poster competition that is featured in the documentary. “It brought the more abstract national debate into a very specific, concrete, local context.”

Ms. Sokolow, who grew up in New Jersey and studied psychology and fiction writing at the University of Pittsburgh, said the origins of her project came through her volunteer work at a nonprofit organization, HealthCare 4 All PA. Assigned to film interviews with people who had dire health care problems, she was troubled by a lack of involvement among 20-somethings.

In response, the “Healthy Artists” series was conceived as a kind of “indie ‘Cribs’ for social justice,” profiling young creatives in brief vignettes and getting them talking in a personal way about medical issues. The pieces were collected online and publicized through social media.

The goal, Ms. Sokolow said, was not to dwell on tragedies but to approach the problem with some optimism and use the films to advocate for broad reform through the idea that basic health care is a human right.

“I wanted to take a more positive approach, to not just focus on health care horror stories, but the people who would be empowered by a universal health care system,” Ms. Sokolow said. “Look at the work they are able to do without it. Imagine what they’d be able to do if they had a social safety net.”

Yet part of the power of the vignettes is how they detail the frustrations of freelancers in an economy in which health insurance has historically been tied to employment. In one profile, Jennifer Gooch demonstrated some of her work as a “musician, artist, crafter, maker, doer,” before tearfully recounting how she had declared bankruptcy after getting an $18,000 medical bill that included a colonoscopy.

“The procedure I got would have cost $800 in a socialized-medicine country, and I lost 10 years of credit,” Ms. Gooch, whose work has been covered by National Public Radio and the BBC, said in a recent interview. As a result of the bankruptcy, she had to give up her tailoring business. The $180-a-month plan she recently signed up for through the Affordable Care Act is a big help, she said, but still expensive.

The number of people ages 18 to 34 who have signed up for health coverage through federal and state exchanges grew substantially last month. But Ms. Gooch’s view was echoed by many artists who came out for a gallery crawl in the artsy Garfield section of Pittsburgh, some of whom said they had signed up for plans, while others said they still could not afford one.

Ms. Sokolow said that with the completion of the 30-minute documentary, the “Healthy Artists” project in Pittsburgh was now largely finished, and that she hoped it would be a model for activism in other cities. She is also finishing her first feature film, “Aspie Seeks Love,” another documentary about the dating life of a Pittsburgh man who learned in his 40s that he had Asperger’s syndrome, and in her parallel career as a musician, she is recording her second album.

“Julie’s ability to reach out through social media and connect artists and culture to a critical social policy issue is significant,” said Jim Ferlo, a Pennsylvania state senator who has introduced a single-payer health care bill. “I wish we could multiply her around the country.”

A subtext in the “Healthy Artists” films, and in Ms. Sokolow’s wider advocacy, is a challenge to the notion that artists must suffer outside the basic economic protections of society. A single-payer health care system, offering coverage to all, could solve that problem, at least as far as it applies to health. But an important step, Ms. Sokolow said, is persuading artists simply to stand up for themselves and address a problem that is felt by all but rarely talked about.

“I would like for artists to be advocates for themselves and their own health and not buy into stereotypes,” Ms. Sokolow said. “The people I profiled are working hard and trying to be healthy, and working against a society that’s not allowing that for them.”