Jenny Baxley Lee loved to sing and dance as a child.
“Those two languages were love languages for sure,” Lee said. “And I chased singing and dancing through my education.”
From early experiences in music and art classes and as lead performer in the fifth-grade play, the Lakeland, Florida, native noticed the difference art can make.
“Just from choral experiences in school, we all came together around music differently than nearly any other activity during the school day, which felt more competitive,” Lee said. “Somehow choral music felt like something you do together, and you’re better for it.”
Lee points to her pursuit of arts in education as what laid the foundation for her career: arts in medicine. Lee has two decades of experience in the field and this spring became the new director of Shands Hospital’s Arts in Medicine (AIM) program.
Lee says she brings appreciation and gratitude for what AIM has already done to her vision for the future of the program.
“This opportunity is exciting because there’s so much to work with,” she said.
AIM is a comprehensive arts in healthcare program. It employs 14 artists in residence in six buildings—all with a goal to “transform the hospital experience for patients, visitors, caregivers and staff.”
Lee said musicians, dancers and theatre practitioners across visual, performing and literary arts offer creative connection, respite and hope to patients with a wide variety of ailments. Some patients are there for long and repeated hospital stays.
“The health care environment can be a cold and sterile place, where a lot of times you’re reduced to a number on a bracelet, or your diagnosis,” said Sarah Hinds, a visual artist in residence on the AIM team.
Hinds said studies show ER patients need less pain medication if they listen to live music and that children’s cortisol levels are reduced while making visual art.
Hinds said hospital staff can get respite as well. Staff frequently enjoy lobby concerts, pop up art activities or unit projects where all are invited to collaborate.
Before coming to UF 12 years ago, Lee worked in several hospitals. She headed a community-centered arts organization in St. Petersburg, Florida, helped genocide survivors in Rwanda, and researched the arts in palliative care in Northern Ireland.
After earning her bachelor’s degree in human development and family studies with a concentration in dance and theater, she wondered, “How can I be a piece of a puzzle that’s more whole because we’re all a part of it?”
While pursuing a master’s in dance movement therapy and a minor in counseling, she was inspired by the plays “Rent” and “Wit,” which examined, among other things, the interplay of the arts and palliative, end of life care.
When one of her instructors got cancer, Lee connected the dots and decided to work in hospitals after graduation, instead of the typical mental health path.
During her early years in the field, Lee recalls encountering nurses who were unfamiliar with the idea of artists offering integrative care to patients. Some would pull back when she was introduced.
She said she won them over with simple activities, like “Take a line for a walk” on paper to color in later, or “The six-word autobiography” to show how arts activities can build connections and benefit patients.
After her clinical work as a therapist in hospitals, Lee said she got “valuable administration experience” as director of Creative Clay in St. Petersburg. She said the nonprofit served adults with developmental disabilities and followed a mission to make the arts accessible to the entire Tampa Bay area.
While Lee was applying for a grant for Creative Clay from the Florida Division of Arts and Culture, she met Jill Sonke, director of the UF Center for Arts in Medicine, which is Shands’ sister program for education, outreach and research.
The two women recognized their similar missions and collaborated at every chance, often in post conflict or crisis settings where they saw unmet acute health needs and felt the arts had a role to play.
“The more work we did together, the more we wanted to work together,” Lee said.
From rural communities in the Florida Panhandle to Rwanda, they forged a relationship where it made sense for Lee to join Sonke at UF. That was 12 years ago, when Lee became the first full-time faculty member of the UF Center for Arts in Medicine, co-founded by Dr. Rusti Brandman, who also founded the dance department.
Since coming to UF, Lee has co-founded the school’s master’s degree program in AIM, created a study abroad program in Northern Ireland, and is working on her doctorate—which focuses on the arts in palliative care. She soon plans to co-author the first textbook on arts in health.
Lee has won fans through her work, including Charles Levy, chair of the UF’s AIM advisory board, who met Lee when he created the Rural Veterans Telerehabilitation Initiative, which is for vets living far from hospitals.
“She’s bright and resourceful and able to connect in a meaningful way to our veterans,” said Levy, who hired Lee as the initiative’s first dance movement therapist. “I’m proud to have her as a friend and a colleague. “
Lee’s people skills impressed former co-worker and fellow artist Sandra Murphy-Pak, who has ALS [Lou Gehrig’s Disease] and creates art with her foot.
“Jenny is an inspiration to work with—she is innovative and compassionate,” Murphy-Pak said. “She’s an eloquent and powerful speaker who cares deeply for the communities she serves.”