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We’ve written before about art in medical settings. In our last relevant blog The Psychology of Art in Medical Settings, Christina described not only her own experience with art in medical places but also the way medical settings have changed recently, galvanized by an experiment that explored how viewing beautiful art pieces affect the brain. I’ve been recently motivated to continue this conversation on the importance of art in healing, thanks to a New York Times article about “Hospital Rooms”, an art and mental health charity.
Based in the UK, Hospital Rooms commissions international artists to create works specifically for inpatient psychiatric units across the UK. It was founded by couple Tim A. Shaw and Niamh White. Tim is an artist and Niamh a curator. The idea came after a heartbreaking incident where a friend of the couple’s attempted suicide. They visited her in a London hospital where the unit was dull and inhumane. “It felt like the environment was doing the complete opposite of what you’d want it to,” Shaw said in the Times article and added “It’d make you feel unloved and unwanted.” It was just amazing to read how the beautiful, altruistic work of Hospital Rooms came from such a tragic situation.
They raised funds from donors that paid for supplies, technicians and a small amount for the artists. But then they partnered with Hauser & Wirth, an international gallery who’ve since pledged to raise over $1 million by 2025 for the charity. As amazing as those things are, one of the best things in the article was that the artists only signed on after being assured they would be able to create “intellectually stimulating and challenging work.” and Niamh White saying that “It was important to not patronize patients by dumbing down.” I love how important it was for them to not just put art on the walls but to make it an experience for patients. Because art is an experience; it’s visceral. You feel art, not just see it. Also touching was that many of the artists run workshops to get patients involved in the creative process. Even though all projects are ultimately decided on by hospital administration, to give the patients a voice in the process is beautiful.
Artists and patients alike see the difference Hospital Rooms is making. One of the artists, Sutapa Biswasn said “I find it really profound, that these works provide a sanctuary space, a space of hope and a space of connection.” Hundreds of patients have told Hospital Rooms that art has helped in their treatment. One patient from the Times article said “In here, you can be very trapped in your mind,” but art was “a distraction, it’s expression.”
I find that to be so true. Art saved me from a particularly harrowing time. While my son was in the NICU and for months afterward, painting (and thinking about painting) became such a cathartic outlet for me. It was a reminder of the complexity of his little body, and how much was going right, even though it seemed as though much was going wrong. I was able to focus on his progress, rather than his physiological missteps. So that instead of being angry, I was able to see what amazing work this little body was doing, and what a beautiful machine it was.
Whether actually painting, thinking about a painting, looking at a painting, or taking part in another art form, art just helps. It offers hope; it heals. That’s the beauty of a nonprofit like Hospital Rooms, bringing museum quality art to places you wouldn’t think to find it is courageous. No one is buying those pieces, you’re not having a fancypants exhibit. It’s just art for the true purpose of art - to evoke emotion and transport you to another place. It’s incredible, which is why this article and the charity it describes blew me away.
I am lucky enough to work in a way that I feel my art has purpose. It hangs in doctor’s offices and hospitals. I get to create custom pieces for IVF journeys, to commemorate a life changing surgery, recovery, or disease. I joke that I make the gross look not gross, but it really means something. A kidney transplant is not inherently beautiful but I get to paint it in such a way that it brings life to what someone went through. They can look at it not as a traumatic experience but through a different lens. That’s what art gives us, that’s what makes me love what I do.