Bucks County artist Theresa BrownGold has launched an ambitious project to paint a hundred people and their health care story.

The project is called Art as Social Inquiry.

Huge faces stare down from the walls of BrownGold's home studio. She works in oil paints and heavy brush strokes, and when BrownGold paints a face, flesh tones are sometimes blue. Sagging skin and wrinkles are often as prominent as a nose or cheek bones.

She calls herself a documentary portrait painter.

“I use portraiture to document the social issues of the day," said BrownGold.  "For example, I will paint pictures of people who have health insurance stories. You know, you hear a fact, 59 million people are uninsured.  It's an intellectual fact and we have a way of storing those in different compartments if they don't agree with our opinions, and we'll be attacking one another, because we are so sure of our facts. Let's forget my opinion, let's forget your opinion. Let's look at the people."

Bill Koehler is one of the faces in Theresa BrownGold's collection. His sister, Pittsburgh resident Georgeanne Koehler, recounted her late brother's story to the artist and WHYY.

“Billy had his first heart attack at 39, he had a sudden-death type of arrhythmia," Georgeanne Koehler said. "He had a job that came with insurance, wasn't a big deal. It was only a big deal once he lost his job.” 

“I want Art as Social Inquiry to simply document what is going on," said BrownGold.  "You can't argue with someone's life."

“Bill not only lost his job, but he lost his health insurance, and as a family we tried to find him a private insurance plan, but we were denied, denied, denied,” Koehler said.

“My hope is, is that an individual viewer will come in to look at a portrait--and read the story--and it might take five, six, it might take 10, it might take 99 portraits before this occurs to someone. But after 99 portraits a person, might say: 'Jeez, I didn't realize all this was going on in this country,'” BrownGold said.

“He died coming home from his pizza-delivery driver job on March the 7th, 2009 at age 57. William Anthony Koehler. I called him Billy; everybody else called him Bill,” Koehler said.

“I get my models through referrals. I track them down, I read news stories. I track them down,” BrownGold said.

“They rushed him by ambulance to a hospital," said Koehler.  "The next day, his cardiologist came in, read his defibrillator, and came back and said your defibrillator is so low it needs to be replaced,” she said.

“Lack of health care is holding us back as a country," said BrownGold.  "It's interfering with our productivity, our worry about it."

“The defibrillator alone is about $10,000," Koehler said. "You know, if you don't have insurance, you pay the total amount, if you do have insurance you pay about 10 percent of the total cost."

“I am supporting the Affordable Care Act, and the reason I am is because it's a start," said BrownGold.  "I don't think that most people realize how desperate the situation is when you are uninsured."

“If you're sick and you're going to die, people think the hospital has to take care of you," said Koehler. "They have to stabilize you. Even though he might die from not having a new defibrillator, he was stable for that minute. He could be sent home."

“I'm not as lefty as people think," said BrownGold.  "What I always say is: The Democrats like me now, but as I keep painting this issue, if they don't tweak the Affordable Care Act, and we find that there are problems with it. I'll be painting those problems as well."

“That's when the doctor went to the side of his bed and said: 'Mr. Koehler, do you put oil in your car?' And when my brother said, 'Well, of course.' The doctor said--with his finger pointed at him--get your priorities straightened out and you'll come up with the money,” Koehler said.

“What's your health insurance? That's all I want to know," said BrownGold.  "Have you used it? Have you needed it? Do you not have it? Were there times when you didn't have it? These are the questions I would ask if you were to be one of my models."


Health and Science Reporter