How Hospital Art Collections Became Very Personal
Posted by Sep 19, 2019
“At the deepest level, the creative process and the healing process arise from a single source. When you are an artist, you are a healer.” —Rachel Naomi Remen, MD
That was the first line of an article I was writing about hospital art collections a few days before my son was born.
Little did I know that I would feel that quote so profoundly in the upcoming months. Call it kismet. Fate. The universe being crazy small.
My son, Odin, surprised me and my husband at birth with a rare genetic syndrome—Treacher Collins Syndrome (TCS). It affects the development of the bones and soft tissues in the face. Most affected individuals have underdeveloped facial bones, very small jaws, cleft palates, and no outer ears.
Seen the movie Wonder? The protagonist, Auggie, has TCS.
TCS typically impacts the airway and ability to feed. Odin was rushed to Children’s Hospital Colorado on his 3rd day of life so that he could get an emergency tracheostomy. His stay at Children’s Hospital Colorado lasted for three months.
Hospitals can be scary, exhausting and overwhelming places.
I am not going to sugarcoat it—those three months were hard. I witnessed my son undergo two intrusive surgeries. For days I couldn’t pick him up and hold him. I had to put away his layette and my going-home outfit I had packed before his arrival. I gave away my nursing clothes. His nursery at home sat empty. Our own home became a truckstop—a pass-through for us to rest and eat. We practically lived at the hospital.
Pablo Picasso once said, “Art washes from the soul the dust of everyday life.” If that’s true, my soul during those three months was covered with the thickest mud. Art was the powerwasher that I needed to cleanse the suffocating mess that was my life at the time.
Where does art come into this?
I grew up in a family of artists. My mom is an art teacher. My dad, Shaun McNiff, is an art therapist, author, and painter. I’ve always had an appreciation of art and the creative process. It’s in my blood.
Every home I’ve inhabited has been covered in art. I need to be surrounded by beauty, by color, by expression. Children’s Hospital Colorado became my home away from home. And I was lucky that this new home is also filled with art.
Children’s Hospital Colorado has an extensive and thoughtful collection that distracted me when I was overwhelmed, calmed me when I was stressed, and later, when Odin could move outside of his room, gave us an activity to bond over while we walked the halls. Art let me bring the outside world to my son when he couldn’t leave the hospital grounds.
“Art is unquestionably one of the purest and highest elements in human happiness. It trains the mind through the eye, and the eye through the mind. As the sun colors flowers, so does art color life.” —John Lubbock (1834-1913), The Pleasures of Life
My son was attached to cords, monitors, and a mist collar for the first two months of his life. We couldn’t move him farther than three feet from his crib. When seated, holding him in our lap, we were constantly de-tangling ourselves from his cords.
This was not what I planned for my newborn. As a maker and lover of art, I had planned to walk my son through the exhibits of the Denver Art Museum while he cooed in his stroller. I was excited to show him my favorite murals in our neighborhood.
I didn’t imagine that his visual appetite would only be satiated by medical equipment in a 50 square-foot room.
When Odin’s respiratory therapist told me that we would be taking Odin for a walk around the pulmonary floor to test how he did unattached to his equipment, I was elated. I literally did a happy dance, much to the amusement of the nurses and the horror of my husband.
When we crossed the threshold of his room, the first thing I did was bring Odin to a watercolor of a llama. My mom’s favorite animal is a llama and I found this sweet, gestural painting to be a reminder that family was always with us. That’s art—it creates connections, bubbles up emotions, makes life more real.
Odin passed the walk test and I was able to walk him through the hospital hallways without a respiratory therapist chaperone. Though we were inside, I brought the outdoors to Odie with the help of the hospital's art collection. I showed him a towering collage of an impressive tree—reaching towards the ceiling. I pointed out the clouds in paintings—explaining how they float overhead in Denver’s blue sky.
Two weeks later when we could finally go outside, I went bananas. I quickly pushed Odin’s fully packed and heavy stroller around the campus with my husband dutifully trailing his oxygen tank. We showed him the public art sculpture that was being installed outside of his hospital room. We watched it go up piece by piece, day by day from the height of the 9th floor, and now we could see David Hayes’ Harlequin up close, all 20 vertical feet of its playful colors and shapes.
We also discovered bronze bears nestled in the bushes of the art walk. We ventured to the Anshutz Medical Campus next door and came across Christopher Weed’s Opening Doors—a large-scale installation of three blue doors rising from the ground. That piece became a metaphor for our experience: each door slowly opening a bit more to the outside world—to possibilities.
Art became an escape.
When Odin was restricted to his room, I would wander the halls of the hospital, distracting myself with impromptu scavenger art hunts. Could I find something blue? Where can I find a painting of an animal? Do they have an Australian artist? Yes?! Jackpot!
And when the day quieted, rounds were over, therapies done, and my husband back at work, I would stroll Odie down the hall. We’d watch the sunset over a favorite large-scale painting of lots and lots of dogs. His adoration of dogs would continue so much so that it became the theme of his one-year birthday party.
I talked to him about what I knew and loved: art. I wanted his world to be more than just pokes, prods, and blinking monitor lights. I wanted him to know and experience color, curiosity, creativity.
And Children’s Hospital Colorado’s art collection gave me that opportunity.
Now I have a long-term relationship with our hospital art collection.
My son goes to Children’s Hospital Colorado every week, whether it is for feeding therapy, an appointment, or a procedure. My husband and I joke that it is our home away from home. As much as I adore Odin’s doctors, nurses and specialists, I am not thrilled by our routine visits.
When we visit, I make it a point to check out the temporary exhibit coordinated by Children Hospital Colorado’s curator, Heidi Huisjen. Repeat visits means that I get opportunities for close looking. This past trip I was elated to see the gorgeous work of an Artwork Archive artist, Anna Rose Bain, featured. What a small world.
As Odin grows and develops, I am fascinated and thrilled to see him discover a piece that we’ve walked by multiple times in a new way. I love watching him observe and absorb the colors and shapes of a bold acrylic painting or tracking over the voluptuous curves of a sculpture.
“Art is a wound turned into light.” —Georges Braque
There’s a lot of chatter among parents of medically complex kids. There is a brutal reality that we were caught by surprise and mourned the healthy baby we expected to have. We all hope for a happy and healthy baby when starting and growing families. It’s shocking when it’s not a given.
Sure, I could get depressed about how my life is different from what I expected. But, as artists, we know that we cannot expect or pre-determine. We have to let ourselves go to the creative process. We have to trust the process. Odin is my light. He’s my work of art. I wouldn’t change a thing.
I’m not alone in my experience.
Over the past few decades hospitals have devoted resources to cultivating thoughtful art collections that calm, distract, and entertain patients, visitors, and employees. Thanks to my son, I now personally value hospitals’ commitment to curating art collections. I am grateful for Children’s Hospital Colorado’s impressive art program.
Our Odin has deepened my connection to art. He has brought new meaning to the work I do at Artwork Archive working with artists and collectors. I see art with a new lens—through the eyes of a child.
It’s a blessing. He’s a blessing. My life and his are better because of the art in our world.
Thank you to the hospitals that make a commitment to hanging art on their walls.
Thank you to the curators who thoughtfully acquire and curate works for our enjoyment.
And most importantly, thank you to the artists who make the moments in our lives better with their creativity.
Art is powerful. Here are five ways art makes the world a better place.
A version of this blog originally appeared on Artwork Archive’s blog.