The Vital Arts

David Trigg takes us on a tour of how the arts and creativity are being employed in clinical settings to promote wellbeing and health

AS NUMEROUS studies have shown, interaction with the arts and creativity can positively impact health by boosting wellbeing, promoting resilience and, within hospital settings, supporting clinical aims. Blazing a trail in the burgeoning field of arts and health is the London-based organisation Vital Arts, which, since 1996 has been working with artists to transform medical environments and improve patient experience across five east London hospitals: St Bartholomew’s (Barts), Mile End, The Royal London, Whipps Cross and Newham University Hospital. Embedded within Barts Health, one of the largest NHS trusts in the capital, the charitably funded organisation has developed innovative art strategies, ranging from site-specific commissions for single rooms to entire clinical units and expansive new buildings, such as the 17-storey PFI addition to the Royal London, which opened in 2012, and the ambitious new Whipps Cross Hospital, still in development.

There is a world of difference between art utilised in spaces where visitors pass through quickly, and where they will spend a lot of time waiting. Image Credit: Owen Richards

For more than a quarter of a century, Vital Arts has been dispelling the notion that hospitals are dreary places, filled with drab waiting areas and soulless treatment rooms. As the organisation’s director Catsou Roberts explains, these are ‘key municipal spaces that form part of the civic complex and, like schools, town halls, libraries and public museums, are meant to welcome and serve the community.’ To that end, Vital Arts is on a mission to ensure that good art and design is utilised to enhance the clinical experience and create a harmonious and cohesive atmosphere throughout. This is not about hanging a few choice pictures between notice boards, rather it is about developing hospital-wide strategies in which world class art is integrated into clinical environments so that ‘a bridge is formed between art scepticism and the eye-catching, mind-tingling experience that art can ignite.’

Having a scan is ordinarily a dull experience, but it can be livened up with creative use of ceiling space

The site-specific projects commissioned by Vital Arts emerge from intense involvement with the hospital context. Site visits (or the study of architectural plans, if a building is still in development) are essential to the process, as are discussions with clinicians and service users in order to gather information about patient demographics, frequency of visits, the types of conditions being treated and the likely psychological impact that an artwork will have on those using a particular ward or unit. ‘We will also be calculating how any artwork might cross someone’s field of vision,’ explains Roberts. ‘An artwork in a corridor observed by patients rushing to an appointment will have entirely different implications than an artwork within an isolation room, where patients are confined for days, sometimes weeks. Ultimately, the aim is to assist expeditions of the imagination’.

Hospital walls and corridors provide broad canvases for artists to add a touch of flair and colour to the clinical experience. Image Credit: Owen Richards

Consideration of interior design is integral to the work of Vital Arts, which takes a holistic approach to all its projects. ‘It’s never about presenting single, autonomous artworks in isolation,’ says Roberts. ‘Rather, we consider overall design and architecture, as well as the social and physical environment of the surrounding locale. It’s about an art and design strategy that runs throughout the entire space.’ This involves taking the patient’s whole journey into account, from their first impressions on entering the department, through to the reception, waiting and treatment areas and, finally, to discharge and exit. While the ideal is for artworks to be embedded into the fabric of the hospital, this is not always possible with older buildings. New builds, however, offer many exciting opportunities and whenever there is a new refurbishment project or construction within one of the Trust’s hospitals, Vital Arts works closely with the architects to discuss how and where artworks might be integrated into the site. Roberts’ team are also involved in specifying flooring, finishes, wall colours and furniture (although the selection is usually limited to a narrow list of NHS-approved suppliers), all of which will serve as a backdrop to the planned art strategy.

Colourful geometric shapes and patterns add a sense of positive adventure to what may otherwise be a stressful and intimidating visit to the hospital

In the case of the PFI buildings at Barts and The Royal London, Vital Arts successfully lobbied against the standard NHS blue palette that had been specified for the interiors, introducing an alternative selection of soft, warm colours to the floors, railings and walls. ‘This made a huge difference for the display of artwork, but more importantly for the patient environment,’ says Roberts. Additionally, the renowned visual artist Michael Craig-Martin was invited to help devise a scheme of strong colour accents for the buildings, which denote specific areas such as Outpatients, Paediatrics or Radiotherapy. Vital Arts has also sought to discourage the use of harsh strip lighting in favour of softer alternatives. ‘Lighting is key within hospitals, especially clinical environments like ours, which mostly lack natural light,’ Roberts explains. ‘Interior lighting needs to be sympathetically interwoven to spatial features to form a positive part of the character and experience of the place.’ This has involved sourcing individual lamps for smaller rooms and, when possible, inviting artists to create larger, bespoke solutions, such as Julia Vogl’s light box, Leaves Illuminated (2017), in which backlit layers of screenprinted leaves create a harmonising, contemplative environment for the Bereavement Suite at Whipps Cross Hospital.

In 2010, Barts unveiled its new state-of-theart Cancer Centre, in which light boxes adorned with photographic imagery are set into the ceilings of the radiotherapy department. Titled Looking Up, the project replaces traditional lighting solutions with views of celestial constellations, enchanting tree canopies and moonlit plants by British artists Darren Almond, Susan Derges, Simon Patterson and Sophy Rickett. The overhead artworks provide a relaxing and calming point of focus for patients who are required to lie still while receiving treatment in the bunker-like spaces of the Linear Accelerator suite. Many have responded favourably, describing the experience as a ‘silver lining’ in repeat treatments. Some patients even request a specific treatment room with a favourite artwork, while others are keen to view all of the illuminated ceilings over the course of their treatment.

Rather than dull blue tones used by the NHS, these clinical designs incorporate vibrancy. Image Credit: Owen Richards

Hospital walls and corridors provide opportunities for artists to inject colour and life into otherwise bland interiors. Cecilia Charlton’s installation Stitch Space (2022), for Newham Hospital’s Same Day Emergency Care Department, wraps its pixelated forms around door frames, windows and waiting areas, accompanying patients and staff as they move around the unit. Charlton is known for her richly patterned, multi-coloured embroideries and weavings that playfully manipulate geometric forms and structures. For this project, she drew inspiration from Bargello, a type of needlepoint thought to have originated in Hungary during the 15th century and which uses flat upright stitches laid in repeating patterns. Translated into vinyl, her gently undulating abstract patterns are complemented by a series of framed works incorporating similar hand-embroidered, ribbon-like forms made with wool. Referencing handicrafts and household materials, they introduce a contemplative domestic dimension, adding to the installation’s overall sense of calm.

In 2011, the product and textile designer Ella Doran worked with the Barts Health procurement team to design furniture and textiles for the children’s wards of the Royal London Hospital. Challenging the conventions of interior design for hospitals, her Bedside Views project includes privacy curtains with playful panoramic views of the Thames in central London, and bedside cabinets decorated with boats, origami planes and clouds. Her pioneering designs even extend to the over-bed tray tables, which similarly bring the outside in with lush garden views. Doran’s intention was to create a positive, non-intimidating environment full of colour and intrigue for young patients to aid in the recovery process. Observing the way that children responded to her work, she said: ‘A seminal moment for me was when a threeyear- old girl stopped crying the moment she saw the curtains, pointing excitedly to the hidden cats and rabbits. That’s when I knew my design had worked.’ Creating a sense of joy for children was also the intention behind Morag Myerscough’s colour-saturated Rainbow Unit (2017), created for the paediatric unit at Newham Hospital. She worked closely with the architects to develop a layered project across multiple surfaces and using a range of materials, including painted wooden panels, bespoke wallpaper, privacy screens and glazing, all featuring the artist’s signature bold, geometric patterns.

Interesting concepts can be explored in vignettes, such as hand shadow puppets.

Dozens of artists have worked with Vital Arts over the years, from well-known practitioners such as Hurvin Anderson, Rana Begum, Cornelia Parker, Roger Hiorns and Richard Wentworth, to lesser known names at the start of their careers. The organisation often approaches artists who have not yet made work for hospitals and for many it will be their first major commission. ‘We take artistic risks knowing it is key to generating art of consequence,’ says Roberts. Vital Arts also works with critically acclaimed poets, dancers, writers, musicians and even jewellery designers such as Tatty Devine (Harriet Vine and Rosie Wolfenden), whose Kaleidoscopic Reflections (2016) for the Children’s Imaging Department at The Royal London was inspired by x-ray imagery. The installation includes thousands of laser-cut acrylic bones arranged in kaleidoscopic compositions across the waiting areas, corridors and treatment rooms. One wall even features a giant dinosaur. Working closely with the department’s radiographers, the award-winning duo gained an in-depth understanding of how the spaces are used and the specificity of the patient demographics. The bursts of colour and intricate designs installed throughout the department create a lively, stimulating environment that holds the attention of young patients – something which is particularly important in situations where intimidating and often scary imaging equipment is being operated.

Artists have also been commissioned to create works for non-clinical areas, such as Lauren Godfrey’s immersive installation What We Wore (2022), which fills Newham Hospital’s three-storey atrium with colourful patterns derived from textiles. The imagery flows across the walls, along the first-floor mezzanine and over a vast glazed facia, enhancing the experience of those entering and exiting the building. Colourful shadows cast by translucent shapes on the windows animate the walls and floor, changing throughout the day with the shifting sunlight. Godfrey took her inspiration from Henri Matisse’s cut-outs, the vibrant patterns of The Memphis Group and fabric sourced from Newham’s Queen’s Market. The specific motifs she has used originated in a series of creative workshops with hospital staff and local students in which she invited participants to bring and draw patterned fabrics that had personal significance. Among the textiles were cloth from a student’s hometown in Ghana, a dress handed down across generations and a treasured shawl gifted by a late relative. The original framed drawings from the workshops are displayed alongside wall-mounted wooden relief sculptures, each of which is based on individual shapes extracted from the sketches.

The design scheme of each department and area of a hospital can be individualized. Image Credit: Michael Whitestone

Vital Arts is currently working with the London-based artist Milly Peck to develop a new sculptural wall installation for Mile End Hospital inspired by shadowgraphy, the ancient art of creating and animating shadow images using one’s hands. ‘At the core of this art form is a sense of humour and imagination, and this is the joyful tone that I want the work to convey,’ says Peck. ‘Shadows also present an interesting alternative to written language and communication providing a sense of inclusivity within the diverse environment of the hospital.’ Peck’s installation, which draws from a 19th century woodblock print of hand shadows by the Japanese ukiyo-e master Utagawa Hiroshige, comprises a series of vignettes, each featuring a different hand configuration realised as a wooden relief as well as an imagined view of the projected shadow painted onto the wall. Among Peck’s imagery is a palm tree, cactus and various animals. ‘Shadows have the exciting potential to morph, disappear, expand and retract, yielding to different surfaces and dimensions,’ she says. ‘Conceptually, they act as a good vehicle to carry a variety of scenes which will allow patients to be transported to different locations or even climates.’

The positive and uplifting experiences that Vital Arts creates for patients, clinical staff and the wider hospital community are the result of a laser-focused vision for how art should be integrated into the healthcare environment. It is Roberts’ belief that hospitals should be as ambitious as possible with the art they present, not using the walls ‘as a megaphone to platform various causes’, but for ‘meaningful, significant art and design which cohabits with the essential elements, such as the equipment, signage and safety systems that make a hospital functional.’ This requires something extra of artists: a depth of engagement and scope of ambition that often pushes them forward in their practice and, as Roberts notes, ‘always yields original results’.

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