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A hospital's hospitality: How one program uses art and music to heal

Salam Rida/Daily
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By Jennifer Xu, Senior Arts Editor
Published February 14, 2011

In her landmark book “Homo Aestheticus,” anthropologist Ellen Dissanayake addresses the classic issue of culture versus biology: Why do people make art? Why do they respond to art in the way they do? Aestheticism, she says, is our way of bracketing things off as a way to cope with life’s more unexpected events — whether marriage, birth, death or war. It is not a parenthetical luxury that can be dispensed with whenever we don’t have the time or resources to produce it — it’s intrinsic to our very beings, a mechanism for survival.

“Having worked at the hospital for 21 years, I do think art is a basic, primal, human response,” said Elaine Sims, the director of the University Health System’s Gifts of Art program. “People’s response to aesthetic or sound — in primitive times, it was probably your mother’s voice, or sounds that meant things were safe, or visual things that meant, ‘This is my clan or family’ — I think these things are kind of hot-wired in.”

In a hospital setting, lives and responses become irrevocably altered. This is where Gifts of Art enters the picture. Through a series of traveling exhibits, musical performances and healing gardens, the program uses art to recenter patients from the illnesses that comes to define them, to bring them back into the fold of humanity.

“When you’re in a hospital, you’re up in a space pod in outer space,” Sims said. “I mean, your whole world slips away from you. It’s just you and that scary, scary reason why you’re in the hospital. And your whole world shrinks to that.”

Sims added: “(Art) really signals all those things about self identity — being human and being there versus, ‘It’s my illness, I have no control.’ It keeps bringing you into the moment, bringing you back where you need to be, to get through what you have to get through.”

Gifts of Art originally began at the University as an offshoot of a University of Iowa program in 1987. Sims stepped up to the role of director three years later and has been championing the field ever since. Today, the program has 54 rotating exhibits that are viewed by over 10,000 people a day and encompass all sensory mediums — visual, auditory and tactile.

Studies have shown that patients respond more favorably to nature scenes, baby animals and French impressionists, so these types of art are often shown. For individual rooms, volunteers also wheel around an Art Cart, a lending library that provides framed artwork for patients — its number now totals 1,000 for the 900-bed hospital.

“Patients become very, very attached to the art, sometimes in a magical or mystical way,” Sims said. “If they had a good result, somehow it had to do with this picture — or this picture pleased them, or helped them through a dark time.”

Studies have shown patients who are exposed to art are calmer — they have lower blood pressure, need less pain medication and require a shorter stay at the hospital. That’s not to say, however, that any abstract, color-splattered Jackson Pollock painting or red, severed hand sculpture will be able to hasten the healing process. If a patient is sick on a hospital bed, mind addled by medication or the stress of the situation, he or she needs to be comforted.

“For people in the hospital, it’s not a time to be challenged, it’s not a time for ambiguity — your mind doesn’t have the energy to work at anything,” Sims said. “Things that are like comfort food, that are familiar, that take you back when you were young and protected are the best kinds of art.”

Music, in particular, causes cells to release substances like endorphins, which are the same pleasure-producing chemicals that give us runner's highs, and immunoglobulins, which help to fight disease.

In this vein of thinking, Sims has recently been looking to expand Gifts of Art within the auditory spectrum.