By Susan Wallner
Just over two years ago, an open call went out to artists living in or near Mercer County, New Jersey. It read: “Capital Health, a not-for-profit healthcare system, seeks to identify a broad range of art reflective of the talent found in communities surrounding the new hospital…” On November 6, 2011, Capital Health Medical Center opened with 800 pieces of art by 70 artists – all of them local to the area. There is a national trend placing greater importance on the benefits of design in health care – but Capital Health is unique in its emphasis on original works of art by painters, sculptors, quilters, printmakers, and other artists from the community.
Scientific research continues to prove what most of us know intuitively – that pleasant environments offering positive distractions such as music, art, and water can reduce stress and contribute to our ability to heal body and mind.* Lin Swensson, art consultant for the Capital Health Medical Center, has made this connection between art and healing her mission. Swensson, herself a breast cancer survivor, is uniquely qualified for her job – she’s an artist and she’s worked in health care design. “I realized that there was this gap between art and healthcare,” she says. “Most of the facilities I went to had very poor quality of art. I knew of many artists who needed a place to show their work or to sell their work, and I could not understand why this marriage had not happened.”
The artists chosen to create work for Capital Health took the job seriously. They – like everyone – have spent time in health care facilities that can be cold and even ugly places. Realist painter Charles McVicker had triple bypass surgery – so he focused on what patients in a cardiology unit might want to see. Quilter and metal sculptor Kate Graves created two very different kinds of work for Capital Health. One is a large quilt for the Oncology Unit meant to convey warmth and caring, made of fabric contributed by the staff. The idea came from quilts Graves had made for friends undergoing chemotherapy. She also made sculptural “healing trees” for various waiting areas, using willow, ash, and gingko – all plants with healing properties recognized by native peoples and global pharmaceutical companies alike.
State of the Arts investigates how art is part of the healing experience at the new Capital Health Medical Center in Hopewell, N.J. Lin Swensson, breast cancer survivor and art consultant, is uniquely qualified to select art for hospitals – and in this case, she used only local area artists. Over four years, Swensson worked closely with doctors, staff, the architectural firm, and the community to commission original art. Artists interviewed include the architect and designer Michael Graves, who also designed furniture for the patient rooms.
The multitalented architect, designer, and artist Michael Graves was also part of the project. Graves (no relation to Kate) was partially paralyzed after a bacterial infection in 2003. He spent months in physical therapy, a time he says was made worse by the poor design that surrounded him. It prompted him to start a new line of well-designed health care items, including innovative patient room tables and cabinets now in use at Capital Health. Graves – a Princeton resident, and thus a local artist – was happy to create some of his signature Tuscan landscapes and floral arrangements for the hospital’s public areas. Swensson worked with all the artists, describing where their artwork would go and how it would function “synergistically” within the hospital as a whole. According to Michael Graves, this created an atmosphere in which “The artist feels beholden to make something really good.”
Working with local artists and using only original art is a creative way to brand a medical center. No longer do people feel obliged to go to the closest hospital; especially in New Jersey, patients can choose among a variety of facilities – why not choose the best looking one? But the choice to make art part of the planning process from the ground up, and to work with Lin Swensson, an art consultant dedicated to working with artists from the community, cannot be written off purely as a marketing decision. From its beginnings at the old Mercer Hospital in Trenton, Capital Health’s art committee has always worked with the community, putting on changing exhibits featuring local artists (they plan to continue this in the new hospital). By building upon this tradition, the corporate team has taken a very human step in connecting with the real community they serve as health care providers.
“Art & Healing at Capital Health Medical Center” is a featured story on this Sunday’s State of the Arts, airing at 10 am and 8 pm on NJTV.
*Visit the Alliance for Arts and Health New Jersey at www.aahnj.org for more information.