Back in the 1980s, a number of art dealers, close friends of mine, died of AIDS. I spent time caring for them in the hospital and then, later, caring for both my parents in the hospital. Every so often I would need a break and would spend time in the cafeteria or by the Coke machine. I came away with the feeling that hospitals are not great environments. Anything you can do to ease a person's stress, especially in the environment, is a plus for healing.
My idea for the Hillman Cancer Center, at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, was to activate the atrium that connects the patient care and research wings of the hospital. I originally conceived of this as ground-based sculpture but, once I saw the plans, I knew that these forms had to fly—and if they flew “upward,” conveying hope and optimism, all the better. Even though the three birds (figure 1) and the fountain sculpture below (figure 2) added a total of $500,000 to a $120 million budget, the hospital patrons supported it every step of the way.
The birds are made of half-inch aluminum, chosen for its strength and lightness; each is painted a different shade of off-white, with the surface partially distressed to create texture that causes a sparkling effect from the high-intensity lighting in the plantings below. The birds are visible not only from the floor, where I've heard many physicians and researchers say they appreciate the relaxing, diverting effect of having them soaring overhead, but also from the patient care areas behind the transparent glass-brick walls (figure 1). The idea here is that if you can distract someone who is in a crisis mode, you can help him or her cope with that crisis.
The nine anchors and stainless steel cables are unique; the cables are larger than they need to be so that they can be part of the visual dynamic of the space, indicating direction and sweep. I didn't anticipate the perfectionism of the ironworkers who worked with me on the installation. Near the end of a week of 12-hour days, when the foreman sensed that I was unhappy with a slight mispositioning of one of the anchors—I didn't have the heart to say anything about it—he told me to go home and not worry about it, it would be perfect for the opening. And when I came back, it was.
Much of my time is spent divining what people are seeing when they envision a piece of art. One woman saw the fountain (figure 2), originally designed with one bird, as housing “a family of birds.” I saw immediately what she was talking about, and changed the plans, with everyone's approval. I like it when people activate me in that way.
As an artist for more than 30 years, I've never done anything for art museums or for personal collections that has gratified me as much as my work for healthcare institutions. I feel there is no better or more satisfying way to use my abilities. HD