Made in Munster: Art helps to soothe Limerick hospital stress

The Arts Council loan initiative, which sees works put on display across the country, is proving particularly therapeutic in hospitals — for staff, patients and their families, discovers Helen O’Callaghan.

Made in Munster: Art helps to soothe Limerick hospital stress

The Arts Council loan initiative, which sees works put on display across the country, is proving particularly therapeutic in hospitals — for staff, patients and their families, discovers Helen O’Callaghan.

They’re just a pair of etchings of the old Dublin-based Player Wills tobacco factory, on the wall in the front hall of St Vincent’s University Hospital.

“They’re not photogenic, they’re not inspiring — they’re just the backs of houses, the normal backs of houses you see in certain parts of Dublin, but so many people stop and look at them and comment on them,” says Ian Callanan, clinical audit facilitator at the hospital.

The etchings are two of 31 pieces of visual art currently on loan to the hospital from the Arts Council collection. University Hospital Limerick (UHL) has a loan of 16 works, while University Hospital Waterford (UHW) will have 19 pieces on loan by December, all from the Arts Council.

The loan initiative, which sees about 50% of the Arts Council’s 1,110 works on display across Ireland at any one time, is all about giving people more opportunity to enjoy the arts — and, in the case of healthcare settings, to offer patients, staff and visitors “moments of escape, comfort and connection”.

According to the Arts Council, artwork can soften and enhance a clinical environment, it can assist with way-finding by providing distinctive landmarks, it can provide distraction and comfort and enhance wellbeing.

Having something lovely on the wall can stimulate imagination and creativity. There’s a release — you can lose yourself in a painting.

“People can have a tough time in hospital — a piece of art can bring them back in imagination to a different time,” says Arts Council director Orlaith McBride.

At St Vincent’s University Hospital, where artwork on loan includes pieces by some of Ireland’s leading artists, Michael Farrell, Patrick Hickey, Estella Solomons, the paintings are on display in public spaces and patient waiting areas.

The exhibition has created quite a buzz. “Staff are noticing patients stopping, looking at the paintings and peering at the labels — you know a painting has been important enough to them when they stop and look,” says Callanan.

He believes art can help patients process the hospital experience.

“Once they’re in recovery from the acute unwell episode that brought them in, they have time to think and process the experience that has happened to them. The benefit of having a painting on the wall is that it can trigger a memory, a thought, and help them process the awful shock they’ve gone through.”

In all the hospitals, the artworks were chosen by staff. At St Vincent’s, Callanan says it was “like a Eurovision vote — we selected a top 30”, and it wasn’t without its challenges.

“Patients are never voluntarily in hospital — they’re a bit like inmates. If we’re going to put up pictures, we have to be careful it’s something that doesn’t distress or frighten them.”

Miriam McCarthy is health sciences academy manager at UHL and she’s also on the hospital’s arts committee, which selected the paintings that now hang between the main UHL reception and the outpatient entrance.

It’s a very busy thoroughfare in the hospital, a kind of gallery space with nice high walls.

McCarthy’s on the corridor every day and knows as soon as she’s asked the painting that has most struck her.

Hospitals involve a lot of waiting, she says, whether it’s someone waiting to collect a family member or a patient for a result or procedure.

“If the paintings offer some comfort and take their mind off their worry, that’s amazing.”

Whether a patient having a conversation about a painting with the porter who’s bringing them back to their ward, or a busy healthcare worker pausing for an instant before a picture, the artworks are having an impact,” says McCarthy.

Mary Tritschler
Mary Tritschler

“One of the patient advocacy and liaison volunteers told me she takes five minutes at the end of her shift to stand in front of a different painting every day and ‘lose’ herself in it.”

UHW has approximately 600 artworks, making it the biggest hospital art collection in the country.

“We regularly receive unsolicited feedback on the difference the art makes to the [hospital] environment and to a person’s experience, be it patient, family member/visitor or staff,” says Claire Meaney of Waterford Healing Arts Trust (WHAT).

“What we want is to soften the clinical environment and reduce anxiety for patients, staff and the hospital community. We have paintings on the ceiling of the radiology departments. We have them in the staff laundry areas.”

Dunmore East-based artist Mary Tritschler has six paintings in WHAT’s latest exhibition entitled ‘That’s How The Light Gets In’.

A spontaneous expressionist painter, she uses the changing cycles of nature as her reference point and is thrilled that her paintings are on view in a hospital setting.

“I hope they offer a brief respite to patients and people visiting hospital. My paintings generally have horizontal lines, which are calming, and there’s always a place where the light shines through.

“I hope they would see that light.”

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