It was a cold Michigan morning when I went to meet the director of the U-M Health System’s “Gifts of Art” program for a quick tour. As I was parking in the structure adjoining University Hospital, I thought about the role of art in a healthcare setting. Everyone inside a hospital is focused on illness and the hope of wellness. Stress, strain and uncertainty float in the air. Can art make a difference?
I recalled a few personal snapshots of previous hospital visits. I especially remember a bleak Christmas season when my brother Joe, in elementary school at the time, was hospitalized for pneumonia. I have a clear memory of walking down a stark cinderblock hallway into a cold, colorless room with a huge oxygen tent and a tiny, curly-haired boy inside it. The institutional feeling of that environment stays with me still, 40 years later.
“Art in a hospital setting has a job to do,” says Elaine Sims, director of the UMHS arts program. Interaction with art in a setting like this is designed to comfort, help one reflect, soothe, cheer, calm, cope…and look forward.
In this series, called 5 Treasures, I’ve committed to visiting each of the University’s artistic and cultural collections to find five treasures. My picks might not be the most famous among the collection, but that’s not the point: a “treasure” can be valued through many different lenses. For my visit to the University Hospitals—especially the new Mott Children’s Hospital—I chose five three-dimensional artistic expressions that simply brightened my day (and, I imagine, will brighten the days of many young patients and their families).
The poignancy of this gorgeous, 16-foot dragon touched me. Located near the University Hospital lobby, he is made from a mosaic of paper pieces—each containing patient wishes—folded into small fans that became the dragon’s scales. The paper sculpture was a collaborative project between the Health System and U-M’s School of Art & Design, dedicated and installed in 2006. Patients, faculty, staff and visitors contributed to the collection of hopes and dreams. And the wishes? They range from prayers for wellness to a dying man’s message to his family. You can read more about this special dragon here.
Elaine and I walked through the main entrance of the University Hospital to the new Mott Children’s Hospital and Von Voigtlander Women’s Hospital. What a stunning space! Even the floor is art: The marble and bronze design features representations of fossils and was created by alumna Michele Oka Doner, renowned for her public art installations. The soaring openness and light in the lobby calls a visitor’s attention to my second treasure—the butterfly installation. New York City-based artist Paul Villinksi created these ethereal blue creatures using 800 Arizona iced tea cans recycled from construction crew trash. The butterflies are mounted with small pins and sometimes move gently in the air.
Of all the gorgeous and uplifting art throughout the new children’s hospital, perhaps my very favorites are the whimsical sculptures by surrealist Gerome Kamrowski. This piece, called The Faithful Companions, is hung above the Welcome desk in the Taubman Connector reception area. The brightly colored fantasy animals are spirit-lifters, for sure. Kamrowski, who was a distinguished member of the U-M faculty for 40 years, was well known as an early surrealist painter who later moved to three-dimensional works.
Much of the art I encountered on my tour through Mott features the contemplative, soothing qualities of the natural world. I especially enjoyed the series of boxed, backlit nature photographs featured on each floor. This example, by photographer Marion Brenner, is one of eight shots of Nichols Arboretum in spring and fall.
This one’s a sentimental favorite. Michigan artist John Schwartz exhibits in the River Gallery near my home in Chelsea. I’ve seen many of his sculptures made from metal and found items, each of them exuberant and quirky. They make me smile every darn time. I was thrilled to see three of his pieces during my visit: a seahorse, a fish and this completely engaging Frog Prince.
As I look at the examples I’ve chosen, I realize they served as bright and cheerful antidotes to a gray and snowy January day. Other visits by other visitors will reveal new favorites, meeting the mood and needs in the moment. Isn’t that the very essence of healing art? I think of how the colors and energy of these particular treasures might have infused some cheer into that dreary hospital memory from long ago.
During my visit I learned more about the UMHS “Gifts of Art” program, too. The mission to deliver art directly to the bedside is especially impressive: Patients can choose from a wide variety of poster art to be hung in their rooms; they can also enjoy more than 70 hours of in-room music performances each week (right now voice, viola and guitar musicians are performing). You can learn more about the Gifts of Art program on their website.
I took my camera with me during my tour of the Health System’s art collection. You can find more images and stories at my flickr photostream.
The Mott collection features 241 pieces in total, funded by donations and selected through a collaborative effort with U-M’s Museum of Art and faculty in the School of Art and Design. You can see more artworks on their website.
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