In 2021, Old Dominion University committed to analyzing the intersection of social justice and the arts through its first "Themester" and the appointment of artist Ted Ellis as Scholar-in-Residence for the College of Arts & Letters.
A culminating event just before exams marked a way for students to apply what they'd learned in a therapeutic setting, gathering for a night of art activities.
Students in the Health Professions Impact Learning Community and Living Learning Communities were enrolled in a set of common courses, including SOC 201S: Intro to Sociology and HIST 104H: Interpreting the American Past.
Ellis teamed up with Leanne White, director of advising for the College of Health Sciences, and Eleanor Lampell, adjunct faculty in the Department of Art, for an evening event to help future health care workers understand the importance of historical insight and self-care in their future professions.
Over the course of the semester, the students engaged in discussions with several guest speakers, including Jamela Martin and Janice Hawkins, both of ODU's School of Nursing, and Leslie Hoglund of the School of Community and Environmental Health.
Students also visited the Chrysler Museum with Jonathan Lopez, instructor of SOC 201S, and engaged in a virtual tour of Ellis' art titled "The Journey to Equity, Justice and Freedom, the Art of Ted Ellis" as part of the learning community activities during the semester. These events focused on social justice themes conveyed through artistic media, which helped them understand the issues of race and disparity in healthcare.
"The painting event gave the students in our Health Professions Learning Community an opportunity to reflect on our semester-long conversation about social justice and social determinants of health and to illustrate their understanding of how things like economic stability, education access and quality, health access and quality, neighborhood and built environment, and social and community context, can help them better understand the causes of health inequities and things needed to keep people happy and healthy," said White, director of advising for Health Sciences and adjunct instructor for the Department of History, who taught the HIST104H class.
The December event, which featured Ellis as a guest speaker, had two parts: first, a warm-up exercise asking students to stand and make large-scale kinesthetic drawing movements, which was "intended to demonstrate how movement can shift your mood and energy," Lampell said, adding, "It is also useful to help those who may not consider themselves creative to have a way to warm up before digging into a longer process."
Next, students were given various art supplies and asked to focus on a question from one of their lectures: "If we sought out a different outcome for better health - more physical, mental and social well-being - what would it look like?" Students used symbols to depict facets of well-being based on that question.
While the event was meant to help students de-stress at the end of the semester, it also marked the end of Ellis' Scholar-in-Residence appointment.
Over the course of his year as Scholar-in-Residence, Ellis worked with students across colleges in classroom and community events, including presentations with students in African American Studies classes, presentations to Virginia Department of Corrections administrators about reform and policy, virtual Juneteenth celebrations in 2020 and 2021 and numerous Instagram Live discussions and tours with ODU students and faculty.
Reflecting on his yearlong appointment, Ellis said it's just one piece of the continued work for racial justice.
"We are now at the end of the road, but there is still more to do," he said. "I see the continued growth of student activism and advocacy for justice and for equality. Although the residency may be ending, the work does not."
The residency helped "raise awareness of social injustice problems that continue to plague America," Ellis said. "I was allowed an academic platform where major resources were available, partnering with academic administration, staff and students to share history through art, engage students, faculty and community."
Ellis said that in his 30-year painting career, he has documented the importance of African American history and culture, and his appointment to Scholar-in-Residence shows the University's commitment to racial justice.
Jonathan Leib, interim dean of the College of Arts and Letters, commended Ellis for his service.
"Having Ted Ellis as our Scholar-in-Residence allowed ODU to provide new and thought-provoking discussions and opportunities to our students," he said. "We are grateful for his time and commitment to educating our students."