Art as Therapy: Three mural projects at the University of Pennsylvania brighten patient's darkest days

Carolyn Vachani, MSN, RN, AOCN
Last Modified: August 11, 2002

The days and weeks spent in hospital rooms and corridors can take their toll on cancer patients and their families. The bleak, sterile hallways can dampen even the strongest of spirits. At the University of Pennsylvania, one hallway was particularly daunting for patients. The hallway leading to the radiation therapy department was a long, bland one that patients must navigate daily for treatment. Artist-in-Residence, Gianna Volpe, MFA, recognized this, and set out to do something about it. She arrived one morning in the hallway, with paintbrush in hand, and began to paint. Within minutes hospital painters and carpenters were on the scene. Gianna explained her plans to give new life to this hallway, and soon the maintenance crew was assisting her, checking her progress daily. In addition to the help of the maintenance crew, Gianna had the help of several art interns to complete the project. As the weeks progressed, the mural took shape like a garden growing in the spring. Patients passing through the hallway were given brushes to add blades of grass to the mural. Some asked for additions, such as butterflies, bunny rabbits, and bumble bees, that they could look for as they passed through the hallway. "The response was absolutely over the top," said Volpe, "we thought, perhaps we could do this for inpatients as well."

Volpe 1

With that idea in mind, Gianna recruited two professional Philadelphia artists, Nancy Adler and Jamie Pearlstein. These two artists generously donated their time (several months worth!) and skill to the project. The three devised a plan to paint two murals, one in the family lounge of the oncology unit and one that would be seen just as patients and visitors stepped off the elevator on the unit. They started with a tropical mural in the family lounge, which was inspired by a 1950's coffee table book that Nancy came across. The room had been a dark underused area, but was brought to life by the talented artists. It became a pleasant place for patients and families to get away from their rooms and visit.

Volpe 2

The second mural, which would be seen by everyone getting off the elevator on the sixth floor, needed to be something that would make people stop and say "ahhh". Something that could have a calming effect on a nervous patient or family member. The women looked to a turn of the century style of art called art nouveau. The painting, which represents the four seasons, has a unique twist. The figures depicted in the mural are employees of the oncology unit and represent four different ethnic cultures. The artists got this inspiration from the many ethnic cultures represented at the University of Pennsylvania.

Volpe 3

The acrylic painting began as a pencil sketch and was all done free-hand. The artists, Nancy Adler and Jamie Pearlstein, spent four months on the project, which gained a loyal following. Patients, families, and employees would visit the mural daily to check on its progress. For some patients, it was the only reason to get out of their room. Some would pull up a chair and watch Nancy and Jamie work. "The project built a nice sense of dialog between visitors, patients, and staff," stated Volpe. "I get to see and hear people's reactions everyday as they get off the elevator, the feedback has been so positive," she added. The finished product is one that visitors to the unit stop and admire as they exit the elevator. These projects have shown just how powerful art can be in the hospital environment. In today's healthcare climate, cost cutting and saving is the focus of medical centers. Were it not for the generosity of Nancy and Jamie, whose time was donated, it would not have been possible to bring this project to light. Patients, visitors, and employees now have a more pleasing view, and in turn, a smile, as they enter the oncology unit each day.

Volpe 4


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