Daniel Rubin: Artist tried to draw attention to troubled U.S. health-care system

Craig Rishko of Newtown reflects on Theresa BrownGold's portraits of people with health-care troubles. She displayed them outside the Bucks County Courthouse in Doylestown.
Craig Rishko of Newtown reflects on Theresa BrownGold's portraits of people with health-care troubles. She displayed them outside the Bucks County Courthouse in Doylestown. (SHARON GEKOSKI-KIMMEL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 31, 2012

Theresa BrownGold spent Wednesday lugging around a giant oil portrait of a college athlete who fell into a diabetic coma because she couldn't afford her insulin.

The Bucks County artist figured the harrowing image of Courtney Leigh Huber, the paint streaking from her face as though she were being erased, would start a conversation about the way this country takes care of the sick.

It didn't.

The 58-year-old painter went on talking anyway - at the SEPTA station in Levittown during rush hour, in the heart of Doylestown at lunch, in Quakertown for the afternoon drive, bringing her one-woman "Truth Tour" to street level in the hope that the faces she's painted over the last four years will reach people put off by politicians, lobbyists, and those looking to make a buck off people's health.

Not that BrownGold is opposed to profit. For a dozen years, she and her husband ran a restaurant and catering company in Buckingham. She handled the money, and a simple calculation at work four years ago ignited her activism.

"We had a longtime waiter who was moving on to a bigger restaurant," she said. "He had full benefits. I realized we could save a lot of money on health-care costs if we hired two half-time employees instead." But her decision troubled her.

So did what was happening to some of her customers, in particular a man whose medical insurance cost him as much each month as his mortgage.

She decided to paint what was on her mind, using what she'd learned at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts to investigate the experiences people had with health care.

Her method was to sit down with her subjects for two to four hours to understand their stories and feelings. Then she'd snap a couple hundred photographs and try to capture something essential.

"I like to say I don't paint people. I paint souls."

She called her project Art as Social Inquiry, and she was hitting the subject from all angles until she was contacted on Facebook by the mother of Courtney Leigh Huber.

Huber was 23, a former high-jump champion. She was also a Type 1 diabetic. After graduating from the University of Missouri at Kansas City, she was dropped from her family's health-care plan.

Her insulin cost less than the insurance premiums, so she went without coverage. She started cutting back her nighttime doses. What she mistook for the flu was really the beginning of a diabetic coma that cost the young woman her life.

Huber's photographs haunted BrownGold. Forget about balance - she started to focus on "the untouchables," those too expensive to cover. She has painted nearly 50 giant oil portraits. She's halfway to her goal.

BrownGold, who describes herself as a left-of-center thinker who always voted for Arlen Specter, has become increasingly radicalized. She took some of her work to the Occupy movement's protests in Doylestown and Philadelphia.

At a town-hall meeting in August 2011, where she confronted her Republican congressman, Mike Fitzpatrick, she was steeled by her portrait of Joann Wallace, a 65-year-old woman from lower Bucks who'd lost insurance after her husband got hurt at work. She skipped seeing a doctor. Her left eye started going bad. A Walmart optician discovered her retina had detached, but Wallace had waited so long she lost about 80 percent of her vision in the eye.

The U.S. Supreme Court came next for BrownGold. For five months in the winter and spring, as the Affordable Care Act was before the court, she displayed her portraits outside. She was looking for sensible debate. She got yelled at a lot - "talking points," she says.

At noon Wednesday in Doylestown, she talked until the sound system cut out. She shrugged and talked louder, offering to answer questions from any of the dozen people who'd stopped on the way to lunch to hear her. Around her a dozen volunteers, many in Obama T-shirts, held her portraits.

"You don't have to agree with anything I said. I just want to discuss it," she pleaded.

There were no takers.


Contact Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917, drubin@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @danielrubin or Facebook at http://ph.ly/DanRubin

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