Art Heals

We may be getting better, but we’re also getting older, and that means more hospital visits. The good news is, two new state-of-the-art medical facilities will soon open on the Route 1 Corridor. Princeton Healthcare Systems plans to open University Medical Center of Princeton in Plainsboro in May, 2012, and Capital Health Systems on Scotch Road in Hopewell will open Nov. 6. Both hospitals acknowledge the importance of art in healing, and have made a significant investment in planning their spaces to showcase the work of local artists.

With its Mondrian-like stained glass wall and 600 works of art by 70 artists, Capital Health Systems could be the new  Grounds For Sculpture for patients and their families. During a recent open house, visitors were chanting “check me in!”

But you don’t have to be a patient or a family member to see the artwork, many of it in public spaces. At press time, Capital Health Systems was preparing a brochure about the artwork that will be available to visitors who request it.

The building itself is a stunning creation, with stonewalls and a waterfall reminiscent of the modernist Vandamm house in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. A five-story atrium is flooded with light from the curved wall of windows that has become a new landmark visible from I-295. There is an on-site spa, a bistro, a kiosk with freshly brewed coffee, a cyber café, a stone fireplace in a waiting area, glass tile walls by the elevator and Michael Graves-designed patient room amenities in the 1 million square foot building designed by HKS Architects. Yes, you read that right – 1 million square feet!

There are healing gardens, garden rooms, and roof gardens, all part of the LEED certified green building design. Capital Health embraces the locavore movement in its food service, and project architect Shane Williams, who lives in Dallas, spent significant time cruising the Trenton-Hopewell area to get ideas for materials that would reflect the area. The stonework, for example, is intended to evoke the stonework of local bridges.

Art consultant Lin Swensson, based in Franklin, Tenn., also spent a significant amount of time in the area – one week out of every month for two years — getting to know local artists. “This region has a rich history of art on both sides of the (Delaware) river,” says Capital Health COO and Executive Vice President Larry J. DiSanto, who selected Swensson to work with local artists. “We wanted to see art not just to beautify the building but to enhance the healing process and reduce stress for patients, visitors and staff who face life and death issues daily.” DiSanto hopes the artwork will help visitors get over the fear they have visiting hospitals. “With state-of-the-art equipment, we’re here to help sick people get better using the best technology in a beautiful hospital environment.”

“The idea for white white white is out,” says Swensson, who is an artist herself. “We’re bringing in nature, colors are bright and positive – yellows and purples – to create joy. Clinical findings show that positive distractions reduce stress. It also shows the patient a commitment to superior care.”

Swensson cites research by Roger Ulrich, a professor of architecture at Texas A&M University who has studied the effects of healthcare facilities on medical outcomes. Dr. Ulrich and his associates have shown how viewing nature reduces stress for hospital patients.

Swensson describes “biophilia” as the desire to hide in nature in order to reduce stress and experience positive feelings. In his book Biophilia, famed biologist Edward O. Wilson hypothesized about the subconscious connections humans seek with other forms of life.

“Not only does art heal, it helps a hospital become more connected to the community,” says Swensson. “People come into the hospital and feel a rapport, because of the work of New Jersey artists.”

Placing artwork in a hospital differs from placing it in a gallery because in a hospital you are creating an environment, says Swensson.

For niches near the elevators on floors four, five and six,

Swensson commissioned Morrisville, Pa.-based sculptor Kate Graves to create trees with different medicinal properties. Graves used steel to create a willow tree for cardiology, an ash tree for oncology and a gingko for orthopedics.

Graves also made a quilt for oncology. “It’s to give a sense of comfort in the waiting area, like a handmade blanky by grandma,” says Swensson. Staff picked out and donated fabrics, some from Pennington Quiltworks and some from loved ones who had survived or not.

A poem about what cancer cannot do is woven into the quilt, although the casual observer will not see it. The staff knows it’s there, and can point to it if needed, as well as to fabrics they donated, so the quilt is for the staff, as well as patients.

The design is Amish Building Blocks, but Graves divided the diamonds into equilateral triangles. Most of Graves’ quilts are made to be machine washable, but this one, behind glass, presented an opportunity to use precious fabrics, like silk from an old kimono.

“It’s like cooking,” says Graves. “You have your ingredients, and it’s how you put it all together.”

For the two-story pediatric emergency waiting area, Thomas Montanari of Hopewell was commissioned to create a mural with hot air balloons. “Kids can be scared in large spaces,” says Swensson. “The mural gives the feeling of being lifted up. There are three stages: on the ground, in the balloon during takeoff and up in the sky looking at the Delaware River. It makes you feel like you are flying.”

With colors that evoke Peter Max, the multi-paneled mural shows billowing clouds over the Delaware, and a patchwork-quilted landscape on the Pennsylvania side. It makes you want to sing Beatles songs.

“Probably my strongest influences are my parents and my upbringing on a farm in the southwestern corner of Connecticut,” Montanari writes in an artist statement. “I was immersed in pastoral life… We were always outside interacting and experiencing the rhythm of nature.

“I truly believe that opening our minds to nature and reconnecting on basic levels can have soothing and healing characteristics, especially for those suffering or recovering from illness,” he continues. “The colors of nature alone can provide some peace and soothe the soul.”

For the pediatric ward, Yardley, Pa.-based artist Colleen Attara was commissioned to make a mural about the bluebird of happiness in her signature style of cutting up recycled signs and creating something new – in this case, a sort of dollhouse village.

“It’s about moving from an urban area to the country,” says Swensson. There are bridges between the urban and country dwellings, and many birds and butterflies. “Instead of Trenton Makes the World Takes, it’s renew, reuse, reinvent as the theme for the new hospital,” says Swensson. “And it’s at a scale where small children can touch.”

Two years ago, when Swensson was first brought on board, she worked with the public relations department to craft a call to artists that was sent to artists, art groups, local media and spread by word of mouth. More than 700 artists submitted, and the list was winnowed down by 90 percent.

In addition, 400 original prints for each of the private patient rooms were commissioned through the Brodsky Center for Innovative Print and Papermaking.

Working for a hospital is very different than creating art for a gallery, Swensson readily admits. Nudity, sexuality and politics are not what the hospital represents, and directives are given for colors and imagery  — for example, reds which may suggest blood are to be avoided. Swatches of fabric and wall finishes were given to artists to work with. “It’s not matchy-matchy, but synergistic,” says Swensson.

“Artists by and large respond negatively to that,” says Susan Hockaday of Hopewell, who made digital prints at the Brodsky Center for patient rooms. “But it seems it worked out extremely well,” she remarked, touring the building and seeing her artwork in place. “I understand how when you’re putting an environment like this together you can’t just say, oh, we’ll see how it turns out.”

Several of Hockaday’s prints are in a nurses’ station, and Swensson has hung some upside down, but Hockaday was pleased with the result. “I firmly believe in rotation,” she says. “The pieces are transformed by the setting. They gain something.”

Marie Sturken, Joan Needham, Anita Benarde, Jean Burdick (whose daughter is scheduled to deliver in the hospital!), Susan Hockaday, Hetty Baiz, Lucy and Charles McVicker, Armando Sosa, J. Seward Johnson Jr., Fay Sciarra, Rhonda Heisler, Derek Fell, Faith Ringgold, Debra Weir, Eve Ingalls, Eileen Hohmuth Lemonick, Judy Brodsky, Harry Naar, Margaret Kennard Johnson, Marsha Levin-Rojer – the work by Princeton area residents just makes you drool at how rich an artistic community we live in.

Swensson visited many in their studios, including Michael Graves. She selected some of his Tuscan landscapes and made enormous digital prints of them for the oncology outpatient corridor. Francois Guillemin did restoration work on some of the doors and furniture brought from the old Mercer Medical Center.

When Michael Graves was hospitalized in 2003 and nearly died, apparently one of the worst parts of the experience for him was the insult of the hospital interior to his aesthetic sensibility. So he did what he knew best: He created a new line of innovative hospital furnishings manufactured and distributed by Stryker Medical. They have created functional patient furniture specifically for Capital Health Medical Center.

Handles have been added to make positioning easier and serve as “touch points” for special cleaning attention. All products meet stringent requirements for safety and hygiene while adding a touch of elegance to the medical environment.

The standard bedside stand is a scaled-down counterpart to the premium bedside stand, which features a fold-up

charting surface, open trays and a two-way cabinet for maximum adaptability even for the bed-bound. The height and position of the over-bed table can be easily and

intuitively manipulated by patients and caregivers. It features raised, contoured edges for patient comfort and spill containment, as well as a multi-material top surface that accommodates both the patient’s personal items and a hospital food service tray.

Swensson got into the healthcare field at the suggestion of her father, an architect and artist. His firm, Earl Swensson International, specializes in healthcare design. “He inspired me to create healing environments,” she says. “He taught me to be sensitive to it, and how architecture can help lift spirits and make life easier.”

Her grandfather was a painter, and her mother was a soprano singer, so the Nashville native grew up surrounded by original art. “Making art is a part of what we did.”

Swensson earned her bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville in 1979 and a master’s degree, also in fine arts, from the University of Utah in Salt Lake City in 1984. She has been an adjunct professor in fine art and interior design and sold furnishings to the healthcare industry.

During the time she was working at Capital Health, Swensson embarked on her own medical odyssey, going through chemotherapy for breast cancer. It helped give her a deeper insight into patient needs. “I was so tired of seeing landscapes, I could scream,” she says. “Don’t hang a photograph of an empty boat at shore – you’re so alone going through chemo.”

She wasn’t alone when working with artists, who became her friends and encouraged her.

On a practical level, artwork can serve as signposts. “Oh, you’re looking for the pediatric ward? Turn right at the hot air balloon.”

A version of this story originally appeared in U.S. 1 newspaper.

This entry was posted in Art Therapy, Central NJ Art, Public Art and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Art Heals

  1. Al Chasan says:

    Hi Ilene,
    I hope some of your paintings were included in the 700. Colorful, a bit quirky and definitely uplifting.
    Al Chasan

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