Art can make a real difference to helping children in hospital get better. The recuperative benefits of a happy and engaging – but calm – environment have been long established, which is why the Barts Health NHS Trust in London has its own arts organisation to commission projects within its hospitals, called Vital Arts.
One of Vital Arts most recent commissions was for one of my children's favourite picture book illustrators, Chris Haughton, to create large-scale murals and framed rugs in one of the Royal London Hospital's paediatric wards. Chris worked with Vital Arts' commissions manager Catsou Roberts, who describes the purpose of Chris's pieces as to "reduce stress and make children feel engaged and enlightened in a space that would otherwise feel very clinical – as it's a brand new building with little natural light on the ward."
Chris's work spans the seven patient rooms, plus the reception/Staff Base (below), playroom kitchen and a 30-metre corridor that connects it all.
"I was quite keen to differentiate each room in a way that children can understand," explains Chris. "They are just numbered 1 to 10, so I thought it would be nice [if] they also each had an animal theme. I got that idea from one of my favourite designers, Katsumi Komagata, who did a very famous commission for a hospital in Japan.
"In my version there’s a lion room, a parrot room, a fish room [and so on]. Each room has the same elements but with a different animal – for example the lion room has the lion’s face labelled on the door, a framed print of the the lion and cub hiding in the grass, and two vinyl stickers of the two lions chatting and running hidden somewhere on the walls."
Before he started on the project, Chris visited the hospital to see Catsou and the space – and spoke informally to some of the nurses about how they used the various parts of the ward. He then sketched his ideas, Photoshopped them into photos of the ward and showed these to the wards doctors and nurses to get feedback. He also took accurate measurements so he could develop his sketches into final artworks to be produced in vinyl – including measurements of everything the artworks had to work around such as doors and rails.
"I was very keen to have the images in the corridors and shared spaces," says Chris. "I wanted to make use of the large space to their best effect and so made a life-size grouping of different animals all together including a huge elephant and dinosaur peering down from the ceiling. They are all being looked after by a monkey dressed as a doctor. The doctors and nurses got a laugh out of that! [Mainly the nurses, I'm guessing. Ed]
"In the playroom, there are five monkeys dressed as doctors playing jazz. Along the length of another corridor is a giant snake being examined by another monkey-doctor with a stethoscope."
Chris also had a series of rugs created by social business Node, which we featured back in 2013. He couldn't use them as rugs due to infection control rules – everything in the ward has to be wipe clean or washable at high temperatures to prevent germs hiding in them – so they were put in frames and hung as artworks (above).
Vital Arts' work is paid for by public and corporate donations – despite clinical benefits, it would be a bad PR move if during heavy real-term cuts to NHS funding that money could be said to be spent on art that could otherwise pay for front-line services.
Catsou says that her remit at Vital Arts is to work with artists who’ve never worked in hospitals before. It's a means to get away from the often-dull traditions of art in hospitals, such as lowest-common-denominator pastoral watercolours in adult wards and well-known cartoon characters popular on paediatric wards. These artworks exist to fulfil perceptions of what hospital art should be: comforting or as, Catsou calls it, pacifying – contributing to boredom on adult wards and aiming at pre-schoolers on paediatric wards looking after children from 3 months to 16 years.
So if you are inspired to contribute your artistic talents to your local hospital, Catsou says to first find out if its trust has an internal or external arts team. Each hospital or trust (group of hospitals) will have a different set-up – ranging from in-house organisations like Vital Arts to working with separate charities to someone within a hospital or trust looking after it alongside their main job.
If your local hospital isn't one of the big ones – and its the provincial hospitals that need your help the most, I'd suggest, as they have limited levels of donations compared to the larger London hospitals – it's unlikely you'd be commissioned and paid as Chris was. Some will need you to volunteer. Some will provide you with materials donated by others. Some, like my local hospital – East Surrey, near Redhill – let artists use the hospital as gallery space: artists get the chance to put their work in front of prospective buyers in exchange for the hospital getting free art.