Images of birds, staring and pecking, can give hospital patients the heebie-jeebies.
That’s just one of the lessons that Stacey Serro learned when she was considering the subject matter for the 4,000 works of art to be displayed on the walls of patients’ rooms in the University Medical Center, scheduled to open in August.
This was a new one to Serro, recently appointed head art curator of the 2.1 million-square-foot’s healthcare facility.
“There was the obvious: nothing morbid or gruesome, no blood, organs, wounds, skeletons,” said Serro, on a recent weekend morning, while unwrapping a series of just-arrived mushroom still-life images by local photographer Frank Relle.
The cache of art — making its hospital debut today with the first installations — had overtaken nearly all 6,000 square feet of Serro’s two-story Gretna design workshop.
“Nothing could be politically charged,” she went on. “Definitely no angels … as they suggest dying and going to heaven.”
Then there was the issue of birds.
“Funny enough, nests were OK, but no birds … those beady glaring eyes,” interjected Page Goss, 27, a New Orleans artist assisting Serro in the process.
But considering that their staging ground is a hospital, “the restrictions weren’t as limiting as you’d think,” said Goss. “I think all of the artists were mindful, sensitive and respectful in knowing that patients and their visitors weren’t looking to be shocked.”
Her own contribution of splashy abstract paintings — collectively titled “The Great Gold Reef Series” and rendered in acrylic — were intended to suggest a “sea of happiness,” said Goss. “I do hope they evoke in patients a calming and happy effect.”
To say that the project is ambitious would be an understatement.
Most hospitals simply buy stock art in bulk, decorative prints and mundane photography, the kind of benign landscapes and pastels found atdepartment stores.
But Greg Feirn, the CEO of Louisiana Children’s Medical Center, said the project aims to bring a sense of place to the hospital environs.
Almost all of the paintings, photographs and mixed-media works were created by Louisiana artists, 70 percent of them original commissions.
“With the art, we wanted it to reflect and celebrate the fabric of New Orleans — its food, culture, music, literature and art,” Feirn said.
Indians and streetcars
That it does.
Among the artworks, there are Mardi Gras Indians, jazz musicians, streetcars, swamps, silver-leaf feathers and New Orleans’ indigenous streets and indelible architecture.
Familiar on the Julia Street art scene, one nifty standout by prominent local artist Courtney Egan is a time-lapse video of magnolias, which open and close when hospital visitors pass infrared sensors.
For established and aspiring artists, the project provided exposure and a unique challenge: a chance to create something, dare we say, earnest?
New Orleans painter Martin Benson, who had three of his tapestry-like acrylics selected for hospital display, described the intent behind the largest of them, which will be hung in the main entrance of Diagnostic Treatment. “It invites a sense of openness and calmness for the viewer.”
“I hope the painting can provide peaceful contemplation, a respite from the potential stresses and difficulties that can accompany a visit or stay in a hospital,” Benson said.
Serro was officially awarded the project in January after exhibiting her skills in art acquisitions for Touro Infirmary in New Orleans.
In the past, she acted as art consultant for corporations such as Motorola and Charles Schwab. But nothing could prepare her for the challenge imposed by the University Medical Center behemoth.
Staging the work included site-specific content for nearly every space in the complex, including patient and exam rooms, the cafeteria, staff lounges, reception areas, public corridors, administrative offices and the hospital chapel.
Serro’s curatorial and quality-control team of 12 — among them, interior designers, framers and artists — broke the space into 36 art themes, such as “industry,” “architecture” and “history.”
They scrutinized every inch of the compound, “right down to knowing where every fire extinguisher was,” said Serro. “You have to be particularly sensitive to the content in spaces such as women’s oncology.”
“The chapel was very sensitive because we had to be aware of all religions and careful not to leave any out. Instead of using religious symbolism, we opted to use meditative, relaxing images,” she said. “The same type of imagery was likewise appropriate for oncology.
“Behavioral health was the most difficult. We could not use any medium that could be ripped off a wall and used as a weapon or could allow for a patient to inflict harm to themselves (i.e., bashing their head into glass and injuring themselves).
“In addition, the imagery needs to be calming and very straightforward, no blurry or busy patterns. We used images of calming nature in all of these.
“In BH, we used thin panels of stainless steel, which can be printed on and can be bolted to the wall securely and can withstand much abuse.”
Prescription for 3-D glasses?
More fun could be had in recovery rooms, where there would be a presumed air of escape. To that effect, artist Cheri Fry supplied acrylic-on-canvas tree paintings that require 3-D glasses to view.
At least for Goss, the experience has opened her eyes to what she called “channeling a ‘yes-mode’ approach to life and work.”
While spreading multiple fish-motif canvases out on her Magazine Street apartment’s back lawn, she looked up, with blue paint covering legs and face, and smiled in the fading sun: “I can’t say I’ve ever had the desire to paint a sno-ball before this project. But I’m all the wiser for it.”