Hospital hieroglyphics

Students express compassion through an unusual medium: x-rays

The beauty of some art is what you don’t see.

The student-done art work in the stairway at Providence Hood River Memorial Hospital is at once interactive and enigmatic. The medium — old x-ray film sheets — was unusual yet fitting.

Murals done by other students at other places might bring instant recognition, but the stairway murals done this spring by May Street students are more personal. The viewer might or might not immediately see the message, but it has people at its heart.

The theme was “compassion,” one of the working tenets of Providence health care providers, and the main message the hospital asked Artist-in-Residence Janet Essley to help the students convey.

And as an art project for fifth graders, much went on behind the scenes. What the public sees is seemingly abstract sets of hieroglyphics, or sets of images that express ideas, but each one has a person behind it: an employee of the hospital.

Walking up and down the stairway the visitor sees mural-sized blocks of images, formed like a quilt, relating the hearts and souls of people who work at the hospital, seen through the eyes and hands of 10-year-olds.

Essley’s project started with the students reading information about their chosen hospital employees, then writing about their subjects in notebooks done in the classroom.

Under Essley’s guidance, the students then created stencils out of old x-ray sheets — which first had patients’ names removed. It was an idea Essley learned from a Cambodian artist in the 1980s when she worked at a refugee camp in Thailand.

Each May Street student drew and then cut out three to five figures that described the type of work and something about the personality of the employee.

As fifth-grader Kathryn Rouse put it, “The whole thing was important because you know you were going to touch someone’s heart.” For some it was more personal than others: classmate Taylor Shepherd happened to be assigned her grandmother, Lynn Berens, director of volunteer services.

Essley spent 45 hours painting the stencils onto the stairwell walls; the stencils were then returned to the student to keep.

On June 9, the students, their teachers, parents, and hospital staff held a reception in the lobby, followed by a tour of the stencils courtesy of hospital security chief Polly Boyle, hospital chaplain Gary Young, and Essley.

“Your art work is spectacular,” Young told the students, emphasizing that their art project was a departure from the purpose of most of the art work on display at the hospital — which includes other student work.

“Here at Providence Memorial we are concerned with spiritual care, which means the care of the whole person — patients and families; but when we started thinking about art for the hallway we decided something needs to be done for our hospital employees,” Young said. “We asked Janet Essley how to approach it and she said, ‘old x-rays.’ I didn’t know about that at first,” he said. “But I learned long ago, ‘Always trust the artist.’ Always trust the artist in you.” Essley said she has always loved hieroglyphics “for their symbolic power.”

“The hospital wanted the art to communicate its emphasis on compassion, and I saw compassion is made up of two words, compass and ion. In one sense it is like a moral compass with a heart at center; also, an ion is a molecule looking for a perfect partner, and that’s another meaning of compassion.”

Essley presented the hospital with a framed stencil image of her own, with the word “compassion” colorfully intermingled with images.

The student stencils are permanently emblazoned on the stairwell’s seven landings.

Essley used seven colors in keeping with the colors associated with healing in eastern medicine; starting with red at the feet, moving through yellow in the legs and lower part of the body, green at the heart, blue and moving on to purple in the head and other parts of the body.

Fifth-grade teacher Linda Drew said the symbol-based art project fit perfectly with the literary segment the students were learning simultaneously.

“We were talking about literary devices at the time we started this: concepts such as similes, metaphors, onomatopoeia, and personification,” Drew said. “We were learning how important words are to images and how important words are to our lives. This connects art to our lives.”

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