Each year, thousands of people visit the Yale Physicians Building on Howard Avenue in New Haven. This multi-specialty center is one of the hubs of the vast medical complex at Yale University. Here, quiet dramas of illness and healing unfold in rooms unseen from the busy corridors and waiting rooms. People’s lives hang in the balance.
In the lobby, fiber artist Andrea Miller’s ephemeral tapestry hangs in the corner, softening the thick, unyielding cement column behind it. Joan Levy Hepburn’s landscape painting The Exit graces the lobby’s main wall. Past the atrium, Eddie Torres’ photographs of a mission trip to Ecuador hang in the orthopedic waiting area. On the second floor, Melody Lane’s mandala sculptures draw visitors into ancient symbols of life.
Art is integral to the Yale Physician Building. The building is home to Art Place, a large-scale public gallery and one of the few of its kind in New Haven. Art Place: Exhibition XVI, which opened in May 2010, is now on view.
Established in 2000, Art Place — subtitled “Art in a Healing Place” — is a project of the Yale Medical Group and the brainchild of CEO Dr. David J. Leffell, M.D. To add color, variety, and meaning to this “beautifully ugly beige building,” says Terry Dagradi, director and curator of Art Place, Dr. Leffell had a vision: art on the walls.
He contacted staff member Lorraine Roseman, who in turn contacted Dagradi, a photographer in Yale University’s Department of Photo and Design who specializes in medical photography.
“We started to play with the idea of how to put art on the walls and how to get the community involved,” Dagradi recalls of her early conversations with Roseman.
The first exhibits featured artists from within the Yale medical community. These shows helped establish the venue’s legitimacy, says Dagradi, but it wasn’t long before the curators widened their circle. Today, most exhibited artists are based in Connecticut, the majority in the Greater New Haven area.
Kevin Van Aelst, a photographer, is one of those artists. A Hamden resident and teacher at Quinnipiac University and ACES Educational Center for the Arts, Van Aelst composes photos using ordinary objects that create unusual illusions and associations. In Exhibition XVI, his photographs include gummy worms arranged to represent chromosomes and a series of his fingerprints crafted from piecrust, Cheetos, and other unlikely materials.
“I know my work appeals to the scientific aesthetic,” says Van Aelst. “Some of the doctors I’ve spoken to don’t consider themselves knowledgeable about art, but they see my work as something they can understand.”
“The patients love it,” says Pam DeLuca, receptionist in the blood-draw area where several of Van Aelst’s works are on display. “Some say they don’t get it, then they see it’s chromosomes from gummy worms. It’s just cool.”
DeLuca keeps a stack of exhibition postcards at her desk to give to patients who inquire about the art.
“I tell people, if you’re interested you can call the artist,” she says.
And they do call, or send e-mail. A medical student recognized the exact molecule represented in Van Aelst’s photo Seratonin.
“I’ve heard from many people,” says Levy Hepburn. “People will say, ‘I’ve been looking at your work a lot because I have this medical problem and I’ve been in the building.’ At other times patients I don’t know have called to tell me how much they like the paintings.
“Until I did this,” she says of exhibiting at Art Place, “I wasn’t aware of the impact that putting art in a public place would have. I thought nobody would notice it; it would be like filler on the walls. When you’re an artist you work alone a lot, and sometimes you ask yourself: Why do I bother? Then you realize it really does make a difference.”
Dagradi and Rosemary DeLucco-Alpert, a freelance consultant and co-curator of Art Place, carefully consider which works are appropriate for which spaces. Some of their decisions are based on visual principles. At other times, they think about the medicine being practiced in a space. Lucienne Coifman’s tapestry Tapu’at (Mother and Child), part of Art Place’s permanent collection, weaves an unbroken line of two colors into a maze-like square. It’s about interconnectedness, and it hangs in the organ transplant area.
Art Place has always done group shows featuring six or seven artists per exhibit. Shows don’t have themes but are collections of artists whose work fits well in the space, both in terms of size and content. Each artist has several works throughout the building.
“Some work isn’t appropriate to come into the space,” says DeLucco-Alpert. “Bare trees — we try to avoid bare trees.”
DeLuca puts it this way: “These people are pretty sick, so anything that’s too outrageous probably wouldn’t be in their best interest.”
In selecting the artists, the curators pay attention to mixing media — showing different types of materials in every show. Dagradi and DeLucco-Alpert do the installations themselves, a job that requires them to work several late nights while the building is closed. Art Place doesn’t take commissions; all proceeds from sales go directly to the artists.
The Art Place audience is extremely diverse.
“That’s one of the great things about the program,” says Van Aelst. “It’s public art, not for regular attendees of
galleries or the people who go to the receptions, but for people who have a different agenda for the day.”
Exhibition XVI may be the last of its size and scale in the building. The show has been extended due to internal questions about the future of Art Place. As the Yale Physicians Building is gradually remodeled, says Dagradi, the Yale Medical Group may move toward establishing a larger permanent collection while maintaining a much smaller space for rotating exhibitions.
Across from Levy Hepburn’s chalk pastel painting After the Storm stands a sign that lists the medical specialties for this waiting area. General Surgery. Infectious Diseases. Neurosurgery. Nuclear Medicine. Pediatric Epilepsy. Rheumatology. Stroke Center. Trauma. It’s a reminder of the seriousness of the medical conditions facing the patients who visit this building.
Levy Hepburn created After the Storm after she witnessed a brief, intense thunderstorm in the mountains of Montana. In the foreground, brightly colored flowers and spring grass stand in vivid contrast to the dark grays of the receding storm in the distance. It’s a metaphor, perhaps, for sickness and healing.
“Paint is just a tool you use to recreate the physical sensation of real light,” says Levy Hepburn, an expert on color separation and a musician. Inspired by the musical structure of the blues, she invented a color wheel based on the evolution of “contaminated color” as it moves toward purity.
This movement of color reflects the experiences of patients, doctors, and family members in this building. They seek a return to health, a reprieve from suffering; yet they are in a “blues” state, their bodies unwell, their lives unsettled.
In the lobby I talked to one patient named Susan. Gazing up at Andrea Miller’s tapestry, part of the permanent collection, she said, “It’s beautiful. It takes a lot of time and effort to make something like that. It’s a very positive, productive thing.” Then she left to catch a ride in the medical transport van.
Upstairs on the second floor, the glass-windowed pedestrian walkway over Howard Avenue connects the Yale Physicians Building with the Dana Building. Here you’ll find works by ceramic artist Melody Lane.
“I started the mandala series when my mother was sick,” says Lane. “It was a healing thing for me. The idea of a mandala is that it evolves from the center. It helps you center.”
Lane began by creating plates, some of which are on display at Art Place.
“Then I realized I wanted light coming through,” she says.
She decided to add glass. To make the glass and clay mandalas, she cuts patterns from two identical discs made of low fire white clay. She fires the discs, then cuts and fits the glass into the pattern.
Exhibition XVI marks the first time Lane has seen her work as it’s meant to be seen: with natural light behind, illuminating the glass.
“In the daytime, when light is coming through, it enlivens the pieces,” she says. “At night, you notice the stone work, the pattern.”
Not long ago, a patient sent a note to Lane. On his way across the pedestrian bridge to receive chemotherapy, he had seen her work many times.
“He said it always stopped him and made him feel better,” Lane recalls. “And I thought, that’s what it’s supposed to do. That’s the testament.”