Janice Darko, a Black woman, leans forward on a table wearing a black dress with a cape with gold fabric embroidered on the edges of hte clothing. She stands in front of some of the art at the art gallery that's hung on a gray backdrop.

Art and dentistry

During the week of April 26 to May 7, 2021, a classroom inside the Ray and Tye Noorda Oral Health Sciences Building at the University of Utah transformed into an art gallery. Blown glass, charcoal portraits, photography and African dresses, all created by staff, faculty and students in the School of Dentistry, were among the pieces in the impressive displays. The art exhibition was the vision of Janice Darko, a second-year dental student and founder of the Black and Art Student Association (BDSA). The gallery was the BDSA’s first-ever event, intended to celebrate the community as a bright spot in a dark year.

Darko is the first female Black dental student at the U School of Dentistry, which was a motivating factor for creating the BDSA.

“I established a Black students’ dental association to promote oral health equity among people of color, with a main focus on the Black community,” Darko said. “By advocating for the needs of and mentoring dental students of color, I hope to increase the profile of the profession in our communities.”

She added an art component to the club to show that, even in dental school, staff, students and faculty can create opportunities for themselves to do what they love. Organizing art shows allows the dental community to display their photography, drawings, poems, crafts and other work to let people see the artistic side of dentistry, Darko explained. “This art exhibit will grow and reflect the experiences and emotions of our dental community.”

The BDSA consists of members and alumni of the dental school who will meet monthly with a different intention each time. The first meetings were focused on the art gallery, partly to create something special for the fourth-year students graduating and to introduce the dental school to the BDSA club. Next month, the club plans to provide volunteering services at Utah Food Bank in Salt Lake City to assist in reducing the burden of hunger.

“I’m the only Black student in the dental school. I needed to do something that is going to represent the Black community,” Darko said. “I want to introduce the public to the talented emerging artists at the University of Utah School of Dentistry community. I want to create an ideal showcase for students, faculty, and staff that has an excellent reputation as an important part of the dental school. I want to build an inclusive space here.”

More than anything, BDSA is about bringing people together.

“I was delighted to experience the artistic expression and communication in this exhibition, and equally delighted that our students chose to create it. We are striving to increase the diversity of the dental profession in Utah, both in gender and ethnicity. The energy, creativity and public presence of this group can only help in that effort,” said Wyatt Hume, dean of the dental school. “Janice Darko deserves special thanks for her leadership both in this instance and more generally. She is a definite force for positive energy and social good within our School of Dentistry family.”

Dentists are artists 

Darko was inspired to create the gallery after studying in the Spencer S. Eccles Health Sciences Library that featured artwork done by people in the medical school. She knew that there is a lot of overlap between artists and dentists—the admission interview includes questions about artistry, and many students double major in art. Originally, Darko’s vision was to create the exhibition in the lobby of the U-hosted Utah Dentist Association annual conference in March 2021. When they canceled the event due to COVID-19, the BDSA had to adjust.

“It’s unbelievable how much talent there is in this school,” said Christina-Mai Just, associate director of Equity, Diversity & Inclusion initiatives at the School of Dentistry. “Janice and the club members have put so much work into creating community. It’s sad that because of COVID, we couldn’t invite campus to come experience the art gallery. I’m looking forward to next year’s exhibition when we can physically gather and celebrate community together.”

Janice Darko stands next to a mannequin that is wearing an afro wig, and wearing a red dress with an African pattern.

PHOTO CREDIT: Mercy Owusu

Janice Darko stands next to a display with clothing sewn by her mother, Rhoda Nartey, who has made clothing for more than four decades.

The artistry is diverse. One of the most eye-catching pieces is dresses by Darko’s mother, Rhoda Nartey, who has sewn clothing for more than four decades. Her expertise is evident—the bright patterns leap from the traditional African fabric, some of which are from her home country of Ghana. Lea Erickson, professor and associate dean of student life and education at the School of Dentistry, contributed pieces of glasswork—a block U and an intricate design in which the glass weaves together like a grass mat. Shaylee Avery, a fourth-year dental student, was excited to showcase her artwork, including paintings of her cats and a sculpture of a glittery tooth.

“I like what the organization stands for and what Janice is trying to do to bring some diversity and some richness into our dental school,” Avery said. “It’s also great to remember that people have multiple dimensions to them—we’re not just book smart, there’s creativity as well. I would always support this organization.”

Darko hopes that events like this exhibition can engage the community outside of the School of Dentistry.

“I think this is an excellent opportunity for the Black Cultural Center to support the Black and Art Dental Student Association,” said Meligha Garfield, director of the U’s Black Cultural Center who was able to tour the art gallery. “How do we get more people of color into the School of Dentistry? I think that is very important. Our focus is on recruitment, retention, graduation, and providing a sense of community. We’d love to help build that bridge.”

Darko and the BDSA plan to go bigger next year by including more art by more artists and bringing in people from other parts of campus.

“This was my first time doing this. So, I’m also learning so much,” said Darko. “I’m so motivated to bring more people into the BDSA and into the artistic path of science. We can communicate with other people that way because it’s about sharing the way we experience the world.”

If you’d like to donate to the Black and Art Dental Student Association, please write to blackandartdsa@gmail.com or Venmo directly to Janice-Darko.

To join, please request through campus connect here.

Media Contacts

Lisa Potterresearch/science communications specialist, University of Utah Communications
Office: 801-585-3093 Mobile: 949-533-7899