Welcome back to our blog series dedicated to spotlighting those who have participated in the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards over the program’s past 100 years. Every week leading up to the national Awards ceremony at Carnegie Hall in June, we will be sharing the stories of some of the program’s incredible alumni whose lives have been impacted by the Awards.
This week, we’re excited to spotlight Scholastic Art & Writing Awards’ alumna Sarah Blanton, a Professor of Rehabilitation Medicine at Emory University School of Medicine, Division of Physical Therapy and Founding Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Humanities in Rehabilitation.
Sarah’s journey combining her love for both science and art started back at Bristol Tennessee High School, at the encouragement of her biology teacher, Dick Burke. Her freshman year, Mr. Burke let her borrow his old cameras, which in turn led Sarah to fall in love with photography. With the support of Mr. Burke, Sarah joined the yearbook staff and spent hours working in the dark room on campus learning how to develop and print her photos. Her parents, equally supportive, also splurged on a used dark room that allowed Sarah to develop her passion for photography at home.
As a junior in high school, Sarah submitted a photograph to the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards and was a Regional Gold Key Finalist. Then, during her senior year in 1983, Sarah was a Regional Overall Portfolio Winner (that included 4 Gold Key Finalists and 3 Honorable Mentions) and a National Gold Key Finalist. Making this achievement even more special, she was honored alongside her best friend Angela Fritz, who was a Gold Key Finalist for one of her watercolor paintings. In preparation for their portfolio submissions, the two students had visited Abingdon, Virginia a small town near the Smoky Mountains, and after Sarah took pictures of the landscape, Angela painted watercolor renditions of Sarah’s photos. Sarah’s photograph and Angela’s watercolor painting of the photograph still hang side-by-side on Angela’s wall to this day. Angela continues to paint as she pursues her career as an award-winning high school art instructor.
As Sarah entered the professional world, she chose to pursue a career in the field of healthcare, initially keeping science and art separate in her life. In the interconnection between the two, however, would keep popping up in her studies and work, and after she was introduced to health humanities, Sarah realized how her work in art and the humanities could make her a better clinician and educator.
Part of this embrace of the arts in the sciences came when Sarah discovered the work of an Atlanta award-winning photographer Billy Howard, who specializes in depicting the role of photography in patient stories and narrative medicine – especially in his book “Epitaphs for the Living: Words and Images in the Time of AIDS.” As luck might have it, Sarah got to meet her role model years later when Billy gave a lecture at Emory. Sarah had the opportunity to let him know how his work influenced her as a young photographer and went on to profile him for The Journal of Humanities in Rehabilitation (JHR). This eventually led to the first disability-focused photography exhibit at Emory School of Medicine, where Howard showcased more of his photography for the community.
Sarah’s involvement with Howard’s exhibition is one example of how she felt a calling to lead efforts to develop the innovative JHR publication from an artistic perspective. Thanks to Emory University’s Center for Digital Scholarship and support from the Division of Physical Therapy, she was able to bring to life the first-ever health humanities journal that explores how physical therapy and rehabilitation sciences require the influence of humanities to function.
To this day, Sarah credits the Awards with leading her towards eventually being able to help influence physical therapists and their work through this humanities-focused journal.
“In my work with the JHR, I am deeply honored to be a part of the visionary group of rehabilitation education leaders who are cultivating awareness and engagement of the humanities in health science education and practice. I think a fundamental part of my role in this ground-breaking work began with the series of experiences with photography - starting with the Awards in high school and leading into college - that showed me how the fields of science and art can intersect in powerful ways.
In a world so heavily focused on science and technology that often devalues the humanities, I am grateful for the foundational role the Scholastic Awards played to underscore just how critical the arts are in fostering humanism and humanistic care. Finding one’s creative voice can be transformational in an individual’s journey, no matter what vocation they choose. I have no doubt my personal and professional identity today was shaped by Mr. Burke helping me find my voice as an artist. I hope I may do the same for my students and those folks influenced by the work we do with JHR.”
Sarah’s work on JHR and the progress she’s made integrating humanities into the healthcare profession contributed to her advancement on the faculty at Emory University and led to her earning an Emory Creativity and Arts Award and the American Physical Therapy Association Societal Impact Award in 2018. She recently completed the Harvard-Macy Art Museum-based Health Professional Education Fellowship, learning innovative ways to use the art museum to support health profession education. Most importantly, this work helped her realize there’s a deep need for science and art to go hand in hand and, thanks to the confidence she received from the Scholastic Awards, she knows she’ll be able to continue combining and implementing the two as she continues to innovate in her chosen field.
To learn more about the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, please visit artandwriting.org. And be sure to return to On Our Minds next week for our last alumni spotlight!
Images in the body: Courtesy of Sarah Blanton