Part of "The Art of Healing" at Smilow Cancer Hospital

Pictures of Health

Dealing with cancer is an undoubtedly difficult task, one in which a positive support system of friends, family and a trusted medical team is critical.

For patients at Yale-New Haven’s Smilow Cancer Hospital, there’s fine art to ease their troubles as well.

Smilow houses what its website says is the third-largest permanent art collection in the state, with over 700 artworks by accomplished painters, photographers, sculptors and other artists, many of them local. The collection, titled The Art of Healing, is museum-worthy, but the hospital isn’t meant to double as an arts institution. The purpose behind it all is thoroughly hospital-focused: to improve the experience and even the health prospects for patients receiving diagnoses, enduring treatments and awaiting surgeries—as well as for family and friends accompanying them on the journey.

“Everywhere you look, it’s about patients and families,” says Alison Marcinek, Senior Development Officer at the Hospital, who walked me through the space. “Each piece was placed where it is for a reason.”

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A large rectangle of tiles in cool blues and grays, earthy greens and warm oranges, uplit and mounted on a gently curving wall, marks the passageway to the Gynecologic Oncology center at the hospital. Beneath the piece, which was created by Elizabeth MacDonald, a cancer survivor herself, is a bench meant for quiet reflection. The result is exactly as intended; it’s very tempting to sit down and enjoy a quiet moment there, seemingly light years away from the throngs and noises you would expect within a busy hospital.

Not all the placement reasoning is so obvious. The photos lining the third floor’s walls, where surgeries are performed, are mostly aerial views—for example, a striking, whimsical bird’s-eye photograph by Alex MacLean of colorful rowboats docked haphazardly at a long pier. Many of the patients traveling these halls do so by gurney on their way to or from surgery, explains Marcinek. Lying down, face up, a monotonous view of ceiling is replaced with fun and distracting vantage and focal points, which is exactly the point.

Exploring Smilow’s vast and varied collection—tucked in nooks and crannies, along walls and in waiting rooms—makes it entirely possible to forget you’re in a medical facility, at least for a few moments. I particularly like a large soapstone mandala on the second floor. Touching is encouraged, and tracing one’s fingers through the grooves is meant to soothe. There are handmade quilts, a seventh floor “Healing Garden” and a large, colorful mural by renowned artist Sol LeWitt.

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Edwardian Opulence at the Yale Center for British Art

Rosalyn Cama is the president and principal architect at New Haven interior design firm CAMA Inc., which oversaw the selection and installation of artwork for the Smilow project. It’s safe to say Cama is established in the field of “healthcare design;” for one thing, she’s written a book, Evidence-Based Healthcare Design. For another, she chairs the board of directors of The Center for Health Design, an organization committed to pursuing the idea “that design could be used to improve patient outcomes in healthcare environments,” according to its website.

Cama says that by the time Smilow was opened in 2009, it had become clear that design matters. Studies had shown, for instance, that patients who can see trees from windows in their rooms tend to be discharged earlier than those who don’t. Intriguingly, Cama says that rooms without a real view of nature, but with wide-shot artistic depictions of nature, produce a similar result.

Because of the evidence that well-chosen artworks can have a healing effect and can benefit the patient/visitor experience, spending money on art was embraced during Smilow’s budget allocations. “You’ll get the money back,” Cama says. “We could actually create a business conversation around this.”

The art, in turn, is likely to inspire conversations throughout the hospital, beginning on the way in. The long, fourth-floor hallway connected to the adjacent Air Rights Garage, where many patients and visitors come and go, acts as the collection’s main “gallery,” with rotating artwork. Currently, there’s a painting of New Haven—including the hospital—by artist Paul Balmer, its marvelous detail begging for a slow inspection. The hallway ends with a very different piece, a lovely pastoral scene.

Smilow’s front lobby (walk back and to the right if you’re coming from the entrance to Yale-New Haven’s main atrium) is home to part of the collection as well. If you visit, be sure to check out Cornelia Kubler Kavanagh’s Wing Form by the elevator bank. The smooth, white sculpture, made of Carrara marble, happens to echo the shape of the hospital’s logo and, like many of the works at Smilow, is calming and serene.

“Hopefully by the time you get where you’re going, you’ve forgotten why you’re going there,” Cama says. “We want people to look at the art, and exhale.”

Written and photographed by Cara McDonough.

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