Thursday, December 24, 2009

Regina Holliday's mural for health-care reform

So early this morning the Senate passed its version of a bill to reform health care in America. I think it's an ideal time to salute the work of my friend Regina Holliday, an artist and advocate for health-care reform, who created an allegorical mural about the problems of health care in the United States.

A year ago Regina was just as much an artist, but not the driven and committed advocate, lobbyist, organizer, and witness for health-care reform that she has become in 2009. Unfortunately, she was moved to reshape her life and her career by painful personal experiences with the many outrages and injustices—some small, some large, all unnecessary—that attended her husband Fred's diagnosis and treatment for Stage Four cancer.

Fred Holliday was both my colleague at work and my friend, a warm and funny presence, a scholar of film and television, a generous host, and a model of how to be a husband and a father. He was admitted to the hospital just a few days before his 39th birthday last March, the cancer having been detected while doctors were looking for the source of other problems Fred had been having. Fred moved from one hospital to another, to a rehab center, and then to a hospice before returning to Regina and their two boys at home for the last week of his life. He passed away in mid-June, a day after my last visit to see him.

Already while Fred was still in the hospital, Regina had begun turning her art to public advocacy for health-care reform. An early painting, Medical Facts, was hung in a local restaurant, and featured a painting of a skeleton showing areas where the bones had been weakened by cancer—the areas where Fred had been afflicted. The painting offered a stark confrontation with the harsh literal facts of Fred's illness, laid bare on canvas. The image was accompanied by text including data from Fred's medical charts, laid out like the "Nutrition Facts" box on food packaging, and it asked a blunt question: "Why do we have more access to information on a box of Cheerios than on a medical chart?"

In early September, Regina finished a much more extensive mural, an outdoor painting that fills the entire side of a BP station at 5001 Connecticut Avenue NW here in Washington, DC. This mural is titled 73 Cents, after the amount it cost Regina, per page, to get a copy of Fred's medical records. Unlike the almost reportorial quality of Medical Facts, the 73 cents mural employs symbolism and allusions to other works of art. Regina describes some of her artistic models for the painting's composition here, but you can probably recognize at a glance the elements inspired by David's Death of Marat and Picasso's Guernica in the central section of the mural:

That's Fred in the hospital bed, clutching a note with an actual message he delivered to his wife: "Go after them, Regina." And that's Regina in blue before him, wearing a mask to show a brave face to Fred as wife and caregiver while a more troubled face is turned to the nurse who is passing some medical records to her. The little boy with the blocks is their younger son Isaac; their older boy, Freddie, can just be glimpsed as an eye peeking through the sliver where the door in the background joins its hinges.

Here is the leftmost portion of the mural:

And here is the right:

For more information about the symbolism of the mural (and its use of text from Buffy the Vampire Slayer alongside quotations from Shakespeare and Thomas Jefferson), along with many more detailed photos, please read Regina's own discussion here. For an early statement by Regina on art as advocacy, please read her post here. For Regina's Thanksgiving post on what 2009 was like for her, Fred, and their boys, please read this post. And for Regina's continued updates on her art, her mission, and the progress of health-care reform, please visit

1 comment:

Regina Holliday said...

Mike thanks for posting this. You are such a dear friend. I am glad I got a chance to read it. I love that you put Fred so big and the mural so small. Because he was so big, so great, and everything else is so small in comparison.