Healing work

Anyone who has suffered the anxiety and sadness of having a loved one injured or ailing knows that merely moving around in the world can seem impossible.

Artist Charles McGee remembers it well. So when he was commissioned a few years ago to create an artwork for Detroit Receiving Hospital’s emergency waiting room, he thought about people in emotional and physical distress, and how to alleviate their anxiety through the psychology of color. In looking at “Time Mutations” (2001), a black-and-white wall relief, viewers get busy with the shapes, scanning the shifting planes and reading the alternating patterns of dots and stripes. He hopes that this takes their minds off trauma. And that seems like the most valid artistic intention I’ve heard in a really long time.

With more than 900 artworks — prints, drawings, paintings, murals, mobiles, tapestries and sculptures — Detroit Receiving Hospital and University Health Center has the largest and most significant art collection in town that you may never notice. It is one of the best hospital collections in the country, but that certainly doesn’t make it a destination. Art consultants Irene Walt and Grace Serra could boast about what they’ve done with the place over the course of 30 years, name-dropping the high-profile artists and collectors who’ve donated major works, but they don’t. Perhaps they find it impossible to find bragging words when art serves such a dignified purpose. In the best way, it’s a diversion.

Irene Walt became involved at Detroit Receiving Hospital in 1968 (then known as Detroit General), a year after the riots in Detroit. Her husband, Dr. Alexander Walt, chief of surgery at the hospital, invited her to initiate an art collection to beautify the environment. In 1980, when the new medical center — designed by modernist architect William Kessler — was built, Mayor Coleman Young appointed Walt and other women to found an art consulting committee. The group started with a small budget, proposing projects to fill seven courtyards, and through years of dedication, along with the help of Serra, who joined as an art consultant in 1999, the project continued to grow. It now fills space in the expansive interiors, on the walls in lobbies, hallways, lounges, meditation rooms and even hanging from the ceilings, making the hospital a place that calms nerves and offers a sense of ease to its patients and their loved ones.

Recently, a small crowd gathered in the hospital lobby to view some of the newest additions to the medical center’s art collection, works by Carole Harris, Glen Michaels, Jeff Guido and others. Taking an art tour at a hospital may seem entirely inappropriate. As it turns out, it actually feels that way. Thankfully, the tour was quick-paced and relatively inconspicuous.

The collection comprises African and Colombian art objects as well as works by modern and contemporary Western artists. Well-preserved ceremonial beaded belts and masks hang near art by Salvador Dalí and Alexander Calder. Still, Serra and Walt describe the hospital as a “Salvation Army of the art world,” because they’ll take in just about anything anybody doesn’t want. Many of the large-scale artworks were intended to decorate restaurants, hotels or airports — matter of fact, “Triton” (1977), a fiber piece by Cass Tech, CCS and Cranbrook alumunus Janet Kuemmerlein, was a gift from the Troy Hilton. The piece is a 200-pound tapestry of woven yarn in the shape of a conch shell, in cream and ripe shades of red.

Some of the best pieces in the collection are the sculptures in the courtyards. For the main floor courtyard, New York-based artist George Sugarman created “Field Sculpture” (1979), a colorful, interactive piece that conveniently bends to provide shade and seating for outdoor dining. Chicago artist Richard Hunt’s “Giant Steps” (1982), in the third-floor courtyard, is a 40-foot-tall sculpture made of stainless steel tubing. Inspired by the elements of molecular structure, Joseph Kenebrew’s “111/4K” (1980) is a freestanding grid supporting 24 aluminum balls that spans five stories and can be seen from the large windows circling the psychiatric ward’s hallway.

There are also several inspiring pieces by such prominent area artists as Gerome Kamrowski, Richard Jersey, Lester Johnson, Allie McGhee, Al Loving and Doug Bulka. Inside the entrance to the medical center is Diana Pancioli’s “Arc,” a mural shaped as a half-moon made from handmade tile and historic Pewabic tile previously commissioned by the Stroh Brewery. In the ceiling’s reflection, the mosaic completes itself as a full circle, drawing the attention of the beholder upward and lifting the spirits of those who walk through the doors to the hospital.

Maybe it isn’t as sexy as a gallery opening, but experiencing art within a hospital can be revelatory. Deeming an object as valuable not because of its price tag, but because it heals the human spirit, can restore even the hardest cynic’s faith. It’s like finding something you never knew you lost. In an unlikely place, the effort to showcase a meaningful object so that someone might respond, even for a moment, without fear of loss, inspires hope.


For more info on the collection, visit drhuhc.org/art or call 313-745-2865.

Rebecca Mazzei is Metro Times arts editor. Send comments to [email protected]
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