From the art cart to a living wall
Art healing: Houston hospitals tap into a connection between uplifting works &getting better
The eighth floor of St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital is a series of hushed hallways and generic walls. Punch pads guard each of the doors on the “sleeping” floor and only the doctors, nurses and chaplains on overnight shifts know the secret codes.
The floor is also frequented by purple-clad women volunteering each week as part of the Art Cart program, a free service allowing patients to choose framed photographs of landscapes, animals and other serene scenes for their hospital rooms.
Arlene Price has been an Art Cart volunteer since 2002 and firmly believes there’s power in the photographs.
“There is a connection between healing and art and our purpose is to share that,” Price says. “We find this is the only thing a patient has control over in the hospital and they enjoy it.”
Price and her team of seven other volunteers rotate floors, making a stop on each floor once every two weeks. The rolling gallery is divided into landscapes, animals, flowers and people. The most popular themes include mountains and waterfalls, because Price says, patients are able to find deeper meaning and images in the prints. She can also tell when patients are feeling better.
“Just last week I had two requests for girls in bikinis. The patients who asked for that are OK,” she says laughing.
Price has witnessed deeply emotional moments behind the Art Cart. A picture of a waterfall flanked by craggy mountains and a forest of trees touched a cancer patient so deeply that Price and registered nurse Rosalyn Jones have taken the photo out of rotation. When the patient comes to St. Luke’s for treatment, that picture is the only one she wants in her room.
“This picture brought her great comfort,” Jones says. “It reminds her biblical themes. The rocks are reminded her of steeples and it was amazing in the middle of her pain, she could see God in a picture.”
The Art Cart program has generated that kind of response repeatedly since its inception in 1991. Kodak gave the fledgling effort a grant and it has blossomed into a 600-piece collection that focuses on pictures rather than famous paintings.
A 2003 study by the Society for the Arts in Healthcare and the National Endowment for the Arts analyzed hospitals accredited by The Joint Commission and found the influence of art creates a more uplifting experience for patients and a welcome atmosphere while building community relations.
St. Luke’s program art program has reached beyond the colorful walls of its own hospital and hosts an annual photography contest for Texas Medical Center employees, volunteers, and medical staff. Winning photos hang in the Best of Show Gallery just down the escalator from the skybridge.
Most St. Luke’s public hallways are mini-galleries and the art is switched out every three to four months, but the art isn’t limited to photos. One hallway hosts a wood-framed case with a glistening collection of Milk glass and another wall is dwarfed by an enormous silk wedding kimono donated by a former patient.
St. Luke’s connecting neighbor Texas Children’s Hospital is awash in color. White and beige halls are not anywhere in the hospital design’s aesthetic; instead bright hues and handmade art hang throughout. It’s a conscious decision and one Jena Guajardo, art program coordinator, says benefits everyone from the hospital’s smallest patients to the grownup caregivers.
“It gives them something to focus on. They can concentrate on something brighter and it distracts them from the procedure they are in for,” Guajardo says. “It’s the same way with the staff. If they have something bright and colorful to look at, it’s a good reminder they are treating children.”
The Texas Children's art program has 6,000 pieces throughout the Texas Children’s system (with an estimated three times more in storage) and was a huge hit when it launched in 1990. The program features art by children and for children and enlists school districts to create pieces for the hospital. Guajardo says the response was overwhelmingly positive and creates pride in the communities involved in its creation.
The Living Wall is a particularly moving sculpture collection in the hospital. More than 200 ceramic pieces made by hospital patients hang on the wall for an extended time allowing the young artists to see their own work. And, just like in a gallery, all artwork is photographed and catalogued.
The hospital's commitment to the arts isn’t limited just to sculpture and paintings though. Music, dance and other creative arts are also part of the healing process offered to patients.