Get to Know Theo Edmonds
Five questions for Theo Edmonds, the Associate Dean for Transdisciplinary Research & Innovation at CU Denver's College of Arts & Media.Megan Briggs | College of Arts & Media Oct 14, 2021
Theodore Edmonds is the Associate Dean for Transdisciplinary Research & Innovation at University of Colorado Denver (CU Denver) College of Arts & Media (CAM). Before coming to Colorado in 2021, Edmonds served at the University of Louisville School of Public Health & Information Science where he founded and co-led the Center for Creative Placehealing—a culture, innovation, and entrepreneurship program at the intersection of public health and the creative industries. In addition to his work in healthcare and higher education, Edmonds is the co-founder of Underestimated People of Purpose (UPOP), a for-profit public benefit organization that uses cultural wellbeing science to support quality improvement and strategic communications processes that humanize the future of work and spark inclusive innovation. Along with his husband, Josh Miller, Edmonds founded IDEAS xLab, an artist-run nonprofit that champions inclusion and belonging through creativity, art, and action.
1. How did growing up in the Appalachia inform or influence your art?
The first thing people should understand about Appalachia is that it’s not just one thing. It’s very a rich, complex set of cultures. Just because there’s not a lot of formal education there, people are resourceful. If you think about a quilt made in Appalachia, that is made not with new fabric that you buy at a store, but with cloth from shirts or pants. Everything had a use and a reuse—multiple lives. This idea of taking something that’s meaningful to you and turning it into something that has both utility and is beautiful—that’s something I grew up seeing a lot around me. Secondly, the storytelling tradition is massively important in Appalachia. How we understood ourselves as a community was through the stories that we told. Similarly, artists are the storytellers in society. Thirdly, in a small community, everybody has meaning to the others in that community. For instance, it wasn’t always the person who had the most that was going to be there for you if you needed something. Sometimes it was often the person who had the least, in terms of the material resources, who would be the first to support their neighbors. That value system of radical inclusion has really informed the activist side of my art-making through the years. When I see people who are put down because of who they are, who are excluded because of who they are, that doesn’t make sense to my brain because of where I grew up.
Unfortunately, when I turned on the TV, media was telling me that where my family’s from for nine generations and where I grew up and loved was not a good place to be. That it was dumb, that people there talk funny, that people there were poor so they didn’t know anything. And because I let myself believe those messages I was getting from the media, I spent a lot of years trying to become something that did not talk like, look like, sound like, act like what the media said that place was. I was willing to suspend what I knew to be true because I wanted the world to accept me in some kind of way. I was not acknowledging myself as an artist from Appalachia. I was changing my voice, changing what I wear, changing a lot of things, and that had a bad impact on my health. On the outside, I was really successful. By the time I was 28, I had a law degree and a master’s in health care administration and I was running the largest cardiovascular center in the southeastern United States. Many of us change who we are just to please other people; science tells us it’s going to impact us very negatively. So the reclamation of who I was on my own terms became my journey back into the arts about 15 years ago.
2. How has Appalachia influenced your academic career?
Appalachia taught me about hope, trust, and belonging, which I would go on to find a way to measure in my academic research. When I started as a principal investigator with the national Science Foundation, three and a half years ago, I wanted to develop a way to measure how the culture of an organization or of a place impacts the wellbeing of its members. After lots of hours in the research lab and lots of hours writing with my team, we were able to prove that hope, trust, and belonging can be measured. And then they can predict your health, your engagement, they can predict employee retention, and ultimately, they can predict the capacity for an organization or a group of people to do what it’s trying to do.
3. How will your research in hope, trust, and belonging inform your work in CAM specifically?
I believe that a good story can change the world and we [artists] are storytellers. I believe science is so important and there is a lot of amazing science that most people don’t understand because you have to have a PhD to read it, and so my role here is to figure out how to take science around things like hope, trust, and belonging, and translate that into a way that artists and creatives can begin working with it—by producing films, exhibitions, songs, and those stories that are going to create a better world than what we have. If you look at where we are politically right now, as a nation, we are deadlocked and we can’t keep going like that. If you look at the health statistics of the United States, I think more of it has to do with lack of trust in each other rather than what we smoke and drink. And so how do we fix that? Well science is part of it, but I believe it’s the arts too. Artists hold the path forward, but they’ve got to use the science. My role here at CAM is to translate those things in a way that makes them usable to the people who are doing the storytelling.
4. What are some of your key focuses for this year?
I am deeply committed, at a fundamental level, to the role of the artist in the world. An artist doesn’t have to be one thing. I think you can be an artist in the corporate community and grassroots activism. You can be an artist in all different parts of society. I’m committed to creating new roles that sustain people financially because we do live in a capitalist society. Art is not just philanthropy or a nonprofit thing.
What I’m trying to do in CAM is create opportunities for the students not only to become exceptionally talented, skilled creatives but also become great thinkers who understand how to make society.
Three things I’m focusing on this year:
- Developing a really rich data collection effort
- Establishing more connections between our creatives and artists on this campus and the business community
- Raising the profile of CU Denver CAM on the global stage as a thought leader in creativity. This will primarily be done through the Future of Creativity Summit that will be held next summer.
5. How do you personally get into a creative state of mind?
Creativity is a combination of three things: skills, resources (lived experience), and motivations. At all times, those three buckets are all circling around. At 51 years old, I’ve developed a sense of who I am and I don’t have to get into a zone to be creative. I know that that is all inside me. I’m more concerned with using the rest of the time I have on this planet to take what I’ve learned up to this point and help others try to accomplish things that are important to them.