Creative Resistance: Colfax artist paints America’s healthcare predicament

click to enlarge "March of 40 Million Uninsured",
"March of 40 Million Uninsured",

By Jill Wilson

For Inland 360

Art activism: It makes you think because it makes you feel.

Nancy Rothwell’s fine art exhibit, “Awaiting Coverage: Healthcare in the USA,” showing at the Libey Gallery in Colfax, expresses the plight of the sick and uninsured in America.

One of her most notable works, titled “March of 40 Million Uninsured,” features the dark silhouettes of countless figures proceeding forward in somber lines. The White House awaits ahead on the horizon like a mirage as the “40 Million” make their way towards the entrance. One person is hunched over a hospital bed with a large crack down the center that descends down into nothingness. The scene is both inspiring and provocative. It’s a reminder that while U.S. policy makers debate about healthcare, there are millions who need it.

“I didn’t set out to make a statement. I started out painting ‘pretty’ paintings for the tourists at the Pike Place Market in Seattle. But after several years of painting Mt. Rainier, landscapes and tea cups, I wanted more of a challenge,” the Colfax artist said during a tour of the exhibit.

Rothwell considered the advice of an art instructor to paint what she thought about.

“I was taking lessons from some teachers and there was a woman by the name of Katherine Chang Liu. In one of her classes, she said you can be a technically good artist but the content is more important, the story you’re telling, and to make it your own. The only way you can do that is to show what’s in your heart. It worries me when I see people that just can’t get insurance for whatever reason. I think we can do better. My family values were: You respect the elderly and you learn from them.”

click to enlarge "Border Crossing" by Nancy Rothwell
"Border Crossing" by Nancy Rothwell

Art was not Rothwell’s first passion. Before her life as an artist she was the deputy regional administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid overseeing Oregon, Idaho, Washington and Alaska.

“I saw many complexities in setting and interpreting national policy and determining congressional intent in both the Medicare and Medicaid programs. Layers upon layers of new regulations made it difficult for anyone to understand — whether it was insurance companies, providers of healthcare or insured/uninsured patients. Uncertainties and delays in coverage decisions were, unfortunately, too common. So, I saw much frustration at all levels, especially with families who were trying to obtain needed care for their loved ones.  It touched my heart at the time and still does today,” Rothwell said.

Rothwell did not start painting until she was in her late 50’s.

“I took my first art class the day after I retired. I was bad, but I was kind of driven. So, in one year I took lessons from 11 different teachers. It forced me to find out what I wanted. I started getting better a year later; then I picked up on painting what you think about. It was a progression.”

The concept to “paint what you think about” has shaped Rothwell’s vision for future exhibits.

“My next show is going to be on baby boomers and the impact they are having on the retirement programs and social security and Medicare. Another show will be on women’s suffrage. In the year 2020, it will be 100 years for women's suffrage. Women got the right to vote 100 years ago.”

click to enlarge "Price Exodus," by Nancy Rothwell
"Price Exodus," by Nancy Rothwell

Rothwell’s discipline for her craft and passion for equality is represented through her talent. Compositions of unpleasant situations are painted with delicacy and beauty. Yet her work is not the aestheticization of suffering but a kind of witness statement from someone who has spent a career in the healthcare field in America. Her figures have no faces, allowing the message of human mortality to strike a universal chord as people see themselves or their loved ones in her work. Rothwell’s art is not simply social commentary: it’s a work of compassion.

“When you paint what you care about, and what is in your heart, it shows,” said Rothwell. “It’s what drives me and it has made me a better artist.”


WHAT: “Awaiting Coverage: Healthcare in the USA,” by Nancy Rothwell

WHEN: Through Oct. 31

WHERE: Libey Gallery, The Center at Colfax Library, 102 S. Main St.

COST: Free

OF NOTE: The gallery is open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday and Friday and 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

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