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Seeing hope: Artists incorporate healing into works meant to bring peace to patients at Cooper’s new cancer center

Editor’s Note: The following article originally ran in the Courier-Post on November 8, 2013.

Seeing hope: Artists incorporate healing into works meant to bring peace to patients at Cooper’s new cancer center

“Cancer” is a frightening word.

For some, it suggests something akin to war. Hard times. Fear. Anxiety.

“Healing,” by contrast, is a lovely concept. And anything that advances it would surely be welcome to a cancer patient.

It was recognition of those contrasts — and their implications — that led the planners of Camden’s new MD Anderson Cancer Center at Cooper to make the firm decision to incorporate art into almost every nook and cranny of this 100,000-square-foot building — and to invite New Jersey artists to submit their artistic interpretations of “healing.”

Submissions came as a result of an Internet blitz, and through various local networks and art centers.

The result is a medical center that could double as a fine-art gallery, with the sort of works that mitigate the challenges of medical treatment for both patients and families.

“We certainly understand the strain and stress of getting through diagnosis and treatment,” says Susan Bass Levin, president and CEO of the Cooper Foundation.

Bass Levin spent months not just helping to launch the MD Anderson Cancer Center at Cooper itself; she also worked with art consultants and artists themselves to create an environment that soothes, engages, and yes relieves, those within its walls.

“The design of the building itself is bright, cheerful and colorful, and that, too, was a major part of our initiative,” says Bass Levin, who also worked with Philadelphia art consultant Leslie Watkins of the Art Partnership, Inc., in choosing, mixing, framing and hanging the art.

Dr. Generosa Grana, who is director of the MD Anderson Cancer Center at Cooper, also had a hand in the selection process.

“Our entire goal is represented by this building and its art. We want the place, the process and the patients to be cared about, thought about and guided through a challenging time. And yes, environment matters,” Grana explained.

And the range, style and scope is vast.

Scene-stealer

The impact of that environment is felt the moment people enter the building. The scene-stealer is a magnificent “Tree of Life,” two stories high and composed of acrylic boxes set on a backlit translucent panel. The impression is one of gently moving leaves and it’s easier felt than explained. If a piece can be gentle and dramatic at once, this is that piece.

Turn in any direction — the waiting area for radiology, the hallways leading to offices, the chemotherapy treatment areas and even the back hallways where patients from the hospital may arrive via ambulance — there is something wonderful, curious, elegant, striking to see.

Because there is so much natural light, those works have a kind of “illumination” that enhances the art that visitors see.

Case in point: Patricia Walkar’s paintings on silk, which the Haddonfield artist explains are an outgrowth of her largely self-taught penchant for lush floral with striking and brilliant colors. A pair of silks under the umbrella of “Gifts of the Goddess’ ” are interpretations of courage and inspiration.

“Yellow is uplifting,” the artist recently explained, “and I see some elements in these of the gathering of light. I also see hope, caring, and a future, not an ending.”

Another of Walkar’s works hangs at the top of the stairs against a wall of rich brick color. “I see this as a plant unfolding in multiple directions, hinting at both beauty and growth,” she says. Its octagon shape gives the wall a life all its own.

Nearby is another showstopper, a gathering of 8-inch by 8-inch squares on which local artists have contributed wildly diverse images that suggest healing, coordinated by the Perkins Center for the Arts in Moorestown and Collingswood. Visitors can pause to study each piece, or just take in the total effect of them all.

Either way, it’s hard to ignore these vibrant artistic collaborations whose subjects include everything from landscapes, flowers, abstract images and reminders of the natural world.

Healing through art

Another memorable work has great symbolic meaning for New Jersey residents. Artist Laura Petrovich-Cheney, a native of Haddonfield transplanted to the Asbury Park area, set about gathering wooden remnants from Superstorm Sandy.

With that debris, she created a remarkably beautiful collage, and its emotional reference to the randomness of life cannot be ignored. This graduate of Moore College of Art also suggests that “. . . In a way, we all suffer like discarded wood at some point in our lives, but through love and kindness, we recover.”

From Nancy Alter of Cherry Hill comes “The Market,’ an acrylic on canvas. Alter herself has multiple sclerosis and has found her own healing through the creative process. “I am inspired by how big a sky can look, by the colors and movement in the natural landscape,” she explains.

Cherry Hill’s celebrated artist, James Toogood, sees his work as a universal form of language that can communicate with virtually anyone. His watercolor of a cranberry bog, in muted tones and with a lovely sense of light and depth, hangs near the chemotherapy area, its inherent tranquility so welcome in the space.

“We hoped that in every area where patients and their families needed something healing, something that reaches out to them, they would find it,” says Bass Levin. “We like to think that we’ve succeeded in that goal.”

It’s a vital concept, but not a new one. In 1860, Florence Nightingale pondered the effect of “beautiful objects” on recovery. Her conclusion:

“Little as we know about the way we are affected by form, by color and light, we do know this — that they have an actual physical effect.”