Joe Concra works to right injustices with his artwork and as co-founder of the O+ Festival, during which artists and musicians barter with healthcare providers.
I was impatient to start life. The son of a single mother, I was born two months premature in a small farming town in South Jersey. I was raised by a wonderful and powerful triumvirate of women: my mother, aunt and grandmother. When I was 5 my mother married the wonderful man who became my father.
We moved around often as my adventurous father looked for a way to support his new family, so I bounced around from school to school. In addition to a lot of awkward “new kid” moments I had the added gift of wearing a clunky leg brace, which attracted the stares and physical intimidation of every bully on the playground. Of course, what I lacked in physical dexterity I made up for with a mouth of an instigator, which to this day can still get me in trouble. I felt a lot of frustration by the unsettled nature of our existence.
But that was nothing compared to my father who, as a young man, was run over by a freight train while working in the rail yards of Queens, N.Y. The accident left him without one leg and missing half of his other foot. Despite his physical limitations, he opened up an International House of Pancakes in Philadelphia. He was a true inspiration to me.
These events of childhood and adolescence had a lasting effect on my belief in the power of the individual to overcome obstacles. My response to cruelty was to get angry at any injustice I saw around me.
There was nothing in my childhood that pointed toward higher education or to a life of making art. No one was more surprised than me when I received my acceptance letter to college. I was the first in my family to go.
Evelyn Fisher was one of my most influential professors at Marist College. She was 5 feet tall, in her late 70s and full of vitality and wonder. My first class with her was an elective: basic sculpture. I did not know much, if anything, about art when I walked into that studio. On the first day, Evelyn pointed out the window and asked everyone what they would do with a pile of bricks that was outside. My answer was to pick one up and throw it through a window.
Evelyn smiled because I think she knew I was trying to get a rise out of her and be the center of attention. She may also have guessed that I was an angry young man with a need to channel my frustration. We began a wonderful friendship through which she challenged me to be my very best. My discovery of oil paint and the power it has had in my life ever since is something I owe to her. A great teacher changes lives.
Visual language is powerful. It is non-verbal communication that connects on an emotional level. This is why we as a society still look to art to feel and enjoy, to bring our own thoughts and experiences to what we see in front of us in a language that is completely unique. Art has given me a way to channel the frustration and anger I have regarding the world around me and turn it into paintings that are both beautiful and, I hope, thought-provoking.
Of course, it is one thing to work alone in a studio and hope that your work connects with people. It is quite different when you work with others on a level that tries to change communities and the conversation about culture and health access in this country.
In 2010 a dentist friend of mine told me about a band he loved and that he would clean the musicians’ teeth if they came to our small Hudson River city, Kingston, N.Y., to play a show. This idea set off all sorts of thoughts. Mostly, I wondered: “Would other healthcare providers be willing to do the the same?” My wife and collaborator, Denise Orzo, and a group of friends, providers and local businesses joined me to address a need. We knocked on the doors of our neighbors and business owners, asking if they would give us the sides of their buildings to paint murals. Could we use the empty storefronts for bands to play in? We knew there was an amazing community bubbling right under the quiet streets just waiting for a reason to believe in itself. And so began the O+ Festival:
“O+ Festival is an organization dedicated to the exchange of medicine and art. Founded in Kingston, New York, chapters of O+ across America host weekend-long annual art and music festivals where participating artists and musicians exhibit their talents in exchange for access to health and wellness services from art-loving, health care professionals. Weaving together artists and musicians, health professionals, business owners and neighbors, O+ strengthens the fabric of the community, contributing to its overall wellness.”
The first O+ Festival brought together 100 artists and musicians, 48 healthcare providers, 30 volunteers and one amazing dentist. We told anyone who would listen that unlike other, much more expensive festivals, O+ attendees who paid $25 would receive a red hospital wristband good for three days of art and music. Those that couldn’t afford the admission were asked to make some kind of donation. We were amazed at the crowds and the response. More than 1,000 people showed up. Everyone had a great time and a lot of uninsured or underinsured artists and musicians got the health and wellness care they needed and deserved, and were appreciated for the cultural contribution they were making to our community. The providers, who cared for the members of the creative community during the festival, told us about the satisfaction they felt knowing they had changed lives. And as a bonus they got to experience performances and view artworks.
After that first year we started to get e-mails from other parts of the country. Bands went on tour and started talking about this festival during which, instead of getting paid, they got their teeth cleaned and saw a doctor. Artists went home and told their friends about the optometrists they saw and the massages they got in exchange for the murals they left behind.
O+ is spreading because of all the people who understand that this is about valuing the contribution we can all make to our community. The festival is now entering its fifth year in Kingston, N.Y., where the once quiet streets are now bustling most nights. We have seen businesses grow and move into empty storefronts.
In 2013, we saw the launch of O+ San Francisco. In the two cities combined we have provided more than 1,470 clinic visits and have hosted 195 artists, including internationally renowned street artist/muralist, Gaia, and performance artist Linda Montano, and 210 bands, including Lucius and Spiritualized. We have attracted 350 volunteers and more than 250 wellness and health providers, not to mention 271 dental appointments by six dentists. Of course, all of the musicians call out the providers at every festival and say they are the real rockstars. Thousands of people have attended O+ Festivals, donating what they can to the cause.
When we value each other not based upon income, education or social standing, but on what each of us brings to the table to exchange and offer to the community, then we are talking about real change. I never would have guessed that a single conversation would lead me down such a rich and rewarding path.
In the studio, I am alone, but if each one of us decides to pick up that brick and work together, there is no telling what we might build.
Photo: CIX Designs