At new UK hospital, art helps with the healing

A loved one is in surgery, and all you can do is worry and wait. Unless, that is, you are at the University of Kentucky’s Albert B. Chandler Hospital.

In that case, you can soothe yourself by admiring original works by some of Kentucky’s best painters, sculptors, photographers and other visual artists.

In the surgery waiting room alone, there are equine paintings by Andre Pater and Peter Williams; blown-glass vessels by Stephen Rolfe Powell of Danville; a wood carving by Wolfe County native Edgar Tolson; interactive three-dimensional works by Steve Armstrong of Versailles; fiber art by UK professor Arturo Sandoval; a sculpture by John Tuska; Lexington painter Robert Tharsing’s fascinating landscape, A Natural History of Kentucky; and much more.

The huge room has just a sample of the more than 300 pieces of art that fill the 1.2 million-square-foot hospital addition, which opened in May. The medical center has become, in effect, one of Kentucky’s notable art museums.

“We wanted to make the public spaces empathetic and relaxing,” said Dr. Michael Karpf, UK’s executive vice president for health affairs. “And we wanted to make it uniquely Kentucky. It’s not all from Kentucky, but most of it is.”

UK has raised about $5 million in private donations to purchase art. The idea is about much more than making the new $532 million building pretty. Art can have a transformative effect on the human spirit. It makes people feel better, from reducing stress to inspiring hope.

“There’s a fair amount of research that shows art will improve moods and make people heal faster,” Karpf said. “So it makes financial sense for us to do this. People feel better and get out of the hospital faster.”

It is common in many cities for major new buildings to invest 1 percent of the construction budget on art. With this huge project, the results are impressive.

As soon as visitors enter the covered walkway over South Limestone from the parking garage, they see glass cases displaying folk art sculptures. Outdoors beneath the walkway is a landscape and water feature with curving fences made from traditional Kentucky dry stone.

Also outside is Second Breath, a bronze figure by Maurice Blik, a Holocaust and cancer survivor. “It ended up being controversial because it’s a nude,” said Jacqueline Hamilton, who coordinates the hospital’s art program.

At the end of the walkway is the education center, where patients and the public can research medical information. It is decorated with cityscapes by Louisville folk artist Anthony Mulligan, other paintings and a case of folk-art sculpture.

Ginkgo, a stainless-steel and fabric sculpture by Warren Seelig, is a focal point in the long lobby that connects the hospital’s wings. Elevator bays feature mosaics of paintings by Versailles glass artist Guy Kemper.

On the lobby’s second floor is the 90-foot-long Celebrate Kentucky wall. Tim Broekema, a Western Kentucky University photojournalism professor, created the wall using photographs and videos of Kentucky scenes taken by dozens of photographers. The wall is constantly changing with images that reflect the current season.

Karpf said the wall has been extremely popular, perhaps because it offers glimpses of home. About 40 percent of the hospital’s patients come from small-town and rural Kentucky.

There are landscape photographs in patient rooms, and paintings and sculpture in halls and reception areas throughout the hospital. Near the emergency room is a video installation called Mine-Control that changes shape as the viewer interacts with it. The pediatric emergency room has art that appeals to children.

The hospital tried to buy at least three pieces from each Kentucky artist it selected. “We’ve done a lot to stabilize the Kentucky art community during the recession,” Karpf said.

Two long corridors have become galleries for temporary exhibits. One now has drawings by Alabama’s Thornton Dial, and the other displays cut-and-paste photographic panoramas of Lexington and New York City by Albert Moser.

The UK hospital is a busy place, but only one piece of art has been damaged — a canvas was accidently ripped but is being repaired. “If you present it as art, people tend to respect it,” Hamilton said.

The Lucille Caudill Little Performing Arts in HealthCare Program and an endowment by Dr. Ronald Saykaly will sponsor performances by UK music students and faculty, as well as other performing artists. Performances can be in the hospital lobby or a new high-tech auditorium. When the violinist Midori was in town in September to perform with the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra, she also played for hospital patients.

“What has been rewarding is that as we tried to humanize the building for patients, we also humanized it for staff,” Karpf said. Physicians have been big donors to the art program, and nurses have helped choose pieces for areas where they work.

When a pipe burst several months ago, filling an emergency room hall with water, doctors and nurses first made sure there were no patients in danger. “Then they started grabbing art off the walls and putting it on gurneys to take it to safety,” Karpf said. “They saw it as their art.”

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