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Chicago artist lands Kennedy Center fellowship for combining health and art

Justus Harris is the founder of MedSculp, which creates art representations of data on diabetes and other chronic conditions. | Provided photos

When Justus Harris was 14, he was diagnosed with diabetes.

Now the Chicago artist, as founder of a company called MedSculp, uses his creativity to help others visualize information about their chronic illnesses.

And those efforts have landed Harris a Kennedy Center fellowship.

Harris, 28, was named a 2018 Citizen Artist Fellow for his work that makes health information, such as diabetes data, more accessible to patients.

MedSculp turns that personal data into artworks such as 3-D sculptures to help people better understand their diabetes and other chronic conditions. Through the fellowship, Harris will have a year of access to Kennedy Center expertise to develop his work — that means mentorship as well as opportunities to promote and perform his works.

MedSculp creations include 3-D sculptures made from personal diabetes data. | Provided photo

The fellowship was awarded to five artists who have had a positive social impact. They were chosen from about 125 nominees from around the country. The yearlong tenure began earlier this month with the Kennedy Center Arts Summit, which brings together artists and leaders to discuss the use of art in addressing societal issues.

Harris said the fellowship was “something I had dreamed about and wanted. … It just couldn’t seem more right to me.”

Harris was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at 14. An alum of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Harris said he was interested in the human body even before his diagnosis, though he didn’t start making art involving diabetes until after college.

Harris has been Maker in Residence at the Chicago Harold Washington Public Library and is Artist in Residence at the International Museum of Surgical Science — roles that allow him to employ his unique art forms.

“I’m bringing art where people aren’t looking for art, but the value of it is still needed,” Harris said.

Harris was Maker in Residence at the Chicago Harold Washington Public Library, where he educated people via a combination of health and science. | Provided photo

Mario Rossero, vice president of education at the Kennedy Center, said the center wants to include people of all abilities, and has considered the role art plays in people’s health and wellness.

Harris’ work fits with this goal, and he was a panelist last year at the Kennedy Center’s VSA Emerging Young Artists program, which focused on artists with disabilities.

“We thought (Harris) was sort of sitting at this crossroads of a real strength in the arts, but he’s also kind of a representative of these communities and is really giving back,” Rossero said. “And his story really resonated with us.”

Rossero said the fellowship involves listening to the artists and figuring out what support they need.

“We really have adopted a very measured pace to the engagement with them … we, as a large art institution, have resources we can share with them, but we also understand that we have questions that we would like to further explore, and we have learning that can happen on our end,” Rossero said.

Harris said he appreciates the open nature of the fellowship and that he and the other artists will have input as to what’s valuable for them to accomplish during their tenure.

“It kind of matches where I am now as an artist,” Harris said. “I’m kind of going through what’s the highest value I can have and how can I share it with as many people when it comes to health and making it OK not to be, quote-unquote, a normal healthy person but then also use art to identify ways to feel better.”