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Creating Healthy Life Habits Through Art

Hold your smartphone at arm’s length and point the camera at yourself….the term “selfie” was officially added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary this year. Now, some Roanoke and Blacksburg High School art students are creating another kind of selfie; one that could influence their health habits in years to come. 

These Patrick Henry High School seniors in Fletcher Nichols’ Studio class are busy discussing their latest assignment.  These budding artists are tasked with creating three self-portraits, or avatars. . .one as they appear now, the second as they would appear in 20 years by following healthy habits, and the third as they would appear in 20 years by following unhealthy habits such as smoking and overeating. 

The idea is the brainchild of former Blacksburg resident Virgil Wong.  The New York City-based artist and cognition technology researcher at Columbia University has developed an app to help people with chronic diseases create self portraits and track their symptoms. 

“So, for example, there’s an epileptic patient here in Roanoke who had been experiencing a number of seizures and a lot of symptoms that some seem to be related and others, not quite so.  So, I’ve been spending a lot of time with him doing sketches over the course of six months, really talking with him, and he was using our application to create an avatar of himself to tap on different parts of his body where he was experiencing these symptoms.  And we created a visualization, a grid that showed when these symptoms occurred day to day over the course of 30 weeks.”

Wong says the patient found most of his seizures occurred when he was stressed at work.  So, in conjunction with his physician’s treatment plan, he started doing yoga and medication to help reduce his stress level.

Wong wants to illustrate how art and technology can combine to help people visualize how their health choices affect them physically.  And he wants to encourage these students to create healthy life choices.

“I’m hoping that the students can really learn about using art to really examine themselves and their lives and to figure out how they can really be creative in their day to day life.”

Patrick Henry student Timothy Doucet plans to work first on the avatar of how he looks now.

“And then work on the unhealthy visual and hopefully see that maybe when I try something on how I look unhealthy from 20 years now it could probably impact me in a literal point of view and actually make me change a few habits because I do have some unhealthy habits I am trying to see if I can fix before it gets worse.”

“And so I’m glad these young people are having an opportunity to know that and to experience that on an artistic level because I think it will help them change their lifestyle if they need to.”

Art teacher Fletcher Nichols is excited his students will have their works exhibited at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine in Roanoke starting in November.

“One of the mandates for this class is that they must show a certain amount of artwork publicly.  So this was a surprise for me and a great surprise because it gets an opportunity for them to show but we’re talking Virginia Tech, we’re talking about being exposed to a lot of students coming through, a lot of visitors coming through.  So it’s the best of the best for them.”

Some of Wong’s works are on display at the Perspective Gallery at the Virginia Tech Squires Student Center through October 18th