Community Healing -- Holistic Wellness and Sustainability

with Vessna Scheff &
Jasmine Joseph

September 20, 2020
BY Kiersten

There is an unconscious image that comes to many of our minds when we think of individuals living with chronic illnesses. Hospital beds and white gowns, the cinematic melodies of heart monitors. But rarely do we think of joy. Well, joy was the first and foremost thought in my mind while talking with Sickle Cell Disease (SCD) survivor and artist Jasmine Joseph who was quick to convey her ambitions rather than her strife. “Im building a studio in my garage. Music producer coming soon.” she says, and I believe her. But this interview wasn’t about highlighting her much anticipated work, it was about shining a light on her. Done so by Philadelphia-based artist and friend Vessna Scheff. These two virtually welcomed me into their lives and with grace and together we spoke about creating art, building community, and practicing the art of healing. 

Kiersten Adams: How did you come across Crescent Foundation or what’s your connection to Sickle Cell?

Jasmine Joseph: I have sickle cell anemia, [specifically] SS. But I’m ready to get included in this organization and be a part of it. I’m in massage therapy school, because I want to do research with massage and sickle cell anemia.

Vessna Scheff: My connection to Crescent is through Simone [Crescent’s Event Coordinator]. She reached out to me and asked if I’d be interested in doing some artwork to help support the foundation and what they’re trying to do with bringing awareness to it. So I feel like I’m pretty new to becoming engaged with that, but I’m really excited to be a part of it, and to have my artwork bring awareness and support for those who are living with sickle cell. 

KA: How can art impact healthcare in terms of wellness? 

VS: The piece that I’m doing of Jasmine highlights and encapsulates what she has brought to the conversation.  idea of wellness,holistic wellness, and it being an ongoing and sustainable practice.. 

KA: Jasmine, as someone interested in massage therapy as treatment, how can other methods of healing replace prescribed ones.  

JJ: My mom and I would go to the hospital, and the hospital would give you too much morphine. To the point where you’re just high out of your mind and just telling them ‘I don’t need any more morphine’. One day I had a crisis and a massage therapist came and gave me a massage and my pain went away. {Massage therapy] will impact the community in distancing from drugs so you won’t be so dependent on it. When you have a sickle cell crisis it’s like having a trigger point or a really tight muscle, so it can be healed holistically instead of giving somebody morphine. 

KA: How did Jasmine become your muse?

VS: I talked with Simone a little bit about this whole project and what her personal relationship with sickle cell is and what it means to be working with Crescent Foundation. The idea of wellness came up, nd thinking about the different ways in which health relates to not just moments of crisis, but everyday moments. Jasmine and I got connected through this program where I got to know Jasmine as a musician. She was an incredible writer, performer, singer, and rapper. It was just a really beautiful connection, and then to hear her talk about sickle cell and wellness altogether; she was just the person who came to mind for me in terms of being asked to create this piece. 

JJ: I don’t mind being the image for sickle cell because it has to be out there. When it comes to meeting people, I won’t let them know that I have sickle cell because I noticed when people find out that you have an illness, they’re nicer to you, or they’re overly considerate and it’s really weird.. Besides that I’m always willing because sickle cell is definitely a disease that people are like, ‘what’s that?’ Or, ‘I heard of it’. I’m always down to give people more awareness about sickle cell because I feel like it’s definitely something that needs to be understood. 

KA: How does Sickle Cell affect how you work together?

JJ: I would say [SCD] impacted it by keeping the AYA family close. AYA is Aspiring Young Artist program that Vessna was doing in different high schools around Philadelphia. Basically they gave us mentors to help us with our arts. I did miss everybody after going to college, but then you guys hit us back up, it just keeps the family going. It’s like glue. 

VS: Every time we reconnect and bring all beautiful different things we’ve learned together and can really talk about them and share them. Yeah, being able to grow together is really beautiful. 

KA: What’s your take on joining a team like Crescent’s that is run primarily by Black folks and people of color?

VS: A lot of the work that I do is about finding or learning and unlearning the histories that I have been taught through school. A lot of the history of the black community, of black culture, of my family has been kept from me. So my artistic practice has been becoming reacquainted with those histories. The history of health and of the black population in the United States in relation to the healthcare system is a very problematic history. Sickle cell is a part of that conversation. I feel like working with an organization that is run and led by black women [and men] is where a lot of answers lie for the future. I am stoked to be part of any groups who are doing that, any collaborations that incorporate that, because that’s the direction that we need to be going in. And those are the voices that we need to be listening to. 

KA: What went into making this piece for the auction? What was the process?

VS: I approached Jasmine and asked if she would be interested in being a part of it. Then the process for me is Jasmine sending me a collection of images of herself. Being able to self identify what image you want to portray and however you want yourself portrayed is really important through portraiture. It doesn’t necessarily have to be like the way you are,it’s how you want the world to know you, like being the narrator to your own story. I read a lot of autobiographies by Black women and I think it is really important to tell your own story. So I asked Jasmine to send me a few images that she felt would be representative of her and how she wants to portray herself. 

JJ: When I was picking an image, I wanted to pick an image where it was like, ‘hold on, this is for sickle cell anemia? It’s not like a store or something? Like this person looks mad normal’.

KA: How’d you pick your medium to paint with?

VS: I just love the medium of watercolor. It speaks to the power of resilience and liberation because water just does what it wants to. It is not bound by your desires, it just does what it wants.

KA: Emotionally what does it do to you when you have to validate your pain in hospitals?

JJ: I actually do get really emotional about sickle cell. I already go through enough misunderstanding and enough disrespect, now I’ve got to go through more. And stress is what triggers the sickle cell pain. Every time I was in a sickle cell crisis, it was because of stress. It just makes me really overwhelmed and emotional because I feel like I have no voice or I’m talking to a brick wall and then people act like they understand but they don’t. 

VS: Having to maintain calmness while experiencing all of that in order to help mitigate symptoms seems like a lot. Like a very stressful situation and then having to be extra calm for yourself and trying to get what you need is a lot to manage all at one time. 

JJ: Yeah. It got to a point where my mom’s just like, we’re going to just use our own stuff to cure ourselves. I was actually experiencing some sickle cell pain and we didn’t go to hospital. My mom just gave me a massage and some tea.

KA: Did having sickle cell or your experience in hospitals push you to become a massage therapist?

JJ: I graduate November 10th. But in order to work in the hospital and be a massage therapist, I have to go back to school and get my medical massage license. I want to have a personal wellness center for people with sickle cell. hat’s gonna take a minute, but it’s going to happen. 

KA: Vessna how does hearing these stories change your view of this disease or view of Jasmine?

VS: It correlates to a lot of stories that I hear about the lack of holistic health for chronic conditions that people have when they go to the hospital— it really frustrates me. I think the discussion of sustained wellness is really important. In terms of my mom’s side of the family, being less trusting of hospitals in general and the care is because there has been this distrust within the black community and especially in relation to black women entering hospital spaces. Those are all the things that I think about when Jasmine tells her experiences, and how it relates to a lot of experiences that people in particular, people of color have in these settings. You need help in terms of a crisis or surgery, but you really need health every day on an ongoing basis. What the healthcare system ends up doing is it separates you from being connected to the experiences that you have within your own body. Struggling with a relationship with your body, feeling like you don’t have agency over relationships with your own body, 

KA: What’s got you excited about partnering with the Crescent Foundation during the month of September?

JJ: It gives me hope that people are more knowledgeable, especially because you guys are using artists, like painters, rappers, singers. That is what draws people in because that’s where people’s emotions are connected to. Using something as deep as art to give more knowledge about sickle cell or just wellness period I feel like was a very smart idea. It gives me hope that people will actually listen and be more considerate. 

VS: It seems like it’s really thoughtfully put together to include and support so many people, and so many different ways in which people could engage with wellness. I think that is just a conversation that needs to keep happening for sickle cell. For people who are living with sickle cell, but for people in general who are living with chronic diseases or experiences to know that that support is around and available. 

KA: How can the healthcare world better include artistic practices for healing and outreach? 

JJ: Art is healing. Art and illness definitely should come together. 

VS: I second that in terms of art being very healing. Art is a place where you can create the world around you. You can convey your imagination or what you believe or think for the world. I think that’s a really important aspect. There is room for you to share and express your ideas, and art is a place where you can do that. It’s exciting to see. 

Vessna and Jasmine are an artistic duo that has partnered with Crescent to give meaning and a face to a disease that is often forgotten. Together they amplify what it means to be a Sickle Cell Disease survivor, artist, and creative. To learn more about the artists, make sure to follow Vessna on Instagram, and check out her website for more noteworthy art.

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