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Art makes a difference in communities, says award-winning UTSC student

Mehdia Hassan with a Pan Am mural she helped create with the youth in her St. Jamestown community in September 2015, celebrating the legacy of the Toronto 2015 Pan Am and Parapan Am Games.

Mehdia Hassan’s lifelong love of the visual arts has ignited a new interest: the study of Health Humanities and how the arts can inform patient care. It also won her a prestigious award from the University of Toronto.

The U of T Scarborough student and artist from the St. James Town community of Toronto was inspired by two courses she took in 2016 – Introduction to Health Humanities (HLTB50) and The Human-Animal Interface (HLTC50) – taught by Dr. Andrea Charise, an assistant professor of Health Studies.

“Taking those courses intrigued me to keep going with the artwork I’ve done, especially in the areas of health and wellness,” says Hassan, who is majoring in Health Policy and Psychology, with a minor in French. “It made me realize how important the arts are when it comes to giving us further insight into health and illness and how it contributes to the human experience.”

Charise is a Canadian research pioneer in health humanities, an emerging field that applies arts- and humanities-based approaches to the critical study of health and illness. She was so impressed with Hassan’s coursework and involvement in the Toronto arts community, she nominated Hassan for U of T’s 2016 Student Engagement in the Arts Award.

In her nomination, Charise notes that Hassan went “above and beyond” course requirements for her final project in Introduction to Health Humanities. In addition to completing a critical essay, Hassan also composed an original piece of visual artwork called, “The Examination.”

“As a professor I was delighted—and moved—by this student’s use of the course material to voluntarily create an additional, imaginative, and critically expansive elaboration of our course content,” says Charise.

Outside of the classroom, Hassan has used her artistic talents to engage youth in St. James Town where she grew up. She was a youth supervising artist for the Welcome Home youth mural project in August 2014, and she won Toronto Arts Council funding to conduct workshops that culminated in the first youth visual arts exhibition in the community.

Hassan says St. James Town faces many social and economic barriers, where children and youth don’t have access to opportunities and resources like arts programming.

“That’s something I really felt passionate about: being able to give back to this community through my artwork and my passion for visual art,” she says.

Hassan’s art is displayed in other locations in the city.  A piece called “Spread Your Wings” – a chair with painted butterfly wings – sits in the children’s section at the Lillian H. Smith branch of the Toronto Public Library. And, a chalk pastel called “The Lovely Mind” is displayed at UTSC’s Health and Wellness Centre.

Charise says Hassan’s academic success blended with her talent in the visual arts have made her an ambassador for the University of Toronto.

“I am tremendously proud of Mehdia’s inter-disciplinary accomplishments and her ability to translate the value of her artwork across traditionally disparate disciplines of art and health.”


© University of Toronto Scarborough