Art and Healing: Collaborative project at Corewell Health's cancer pavilion

Corewell Health's Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion is serving as a temporary canvas for three collaborative art projects. Last fall, students from the Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University (KCAD) partnered with Corewell Health to bring the healing power of art to the Cancer Pavilion. 

For the next few months, Pavillion visitors can see two of the three components of this collaborative project. The first art installation visitors encounter is inside the two south elevators. 

One elevator installation is titled 'Moonlit Koi.' KCAD students in an intermediate materials class created vinyl stickers that feature koi fish swimming among a moon and stars. The second elevator is called 'Fables.' It shows images of teapots pouring liquid into a body of water.
Students in a Kendal College of Art and Design drawing class created a window mural using window paint markers., titled 'Michigan Over and Under,' the piece celebrates Michigan's nature.
The second art installation lives in the Pavillion's Resource Library. First-year students in a drawing class created a window mural using window paint markers. Titled 'Michigan Over and Under,' the piece celebrates Michigan's nature. The windows feature wildlife drawings, including beasts, birds, fish, and flowers.

The third component of the project isn't on display. In this part of the project, advanced KCAD students created portraits of individuals undergoing cancer treatment. The students also drew portraits of Pavillion employees. Each subject received their portraits as gifts. 
Students from the Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University sketch patients at Corewell Health's Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion.

Bringing art into new space

Katherine Williams, the oncology communication program supervisor at Corewell Health, played a pivotal role in piloting this collaboration. A Kendall graduate, Williams previously worked at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts (UICA) as their community programs coordinator.

"I always kept in the back of my mind that one of these days, I want to bring a special project into this space. The arts can have a very positive impact and help with processing emotions," Williams shares.

Last year, Williams got together for coffee with professor Danielle Wyckoff, an instructor at KCAD. Williams asked Wyckoff if her students might be interested in an art collaboration with Corewell.

"I have a background in participatory art and art that's socially engaged," says Wyckoff, "so I jumped at the chance to work with Katherine in order to find ways for students to essentially apply their art in a real-world situation."

Navigating the intricacies of healthcare protocols, Williams consulted with her teams to ensure Wyckoff's students were well-informed about legal requirements like the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Corewell staff also visited the school to talk to Wyckoff's students about appropriate ways to engage with people at the Pavillion.

"Statistically, the American Cancer Society states that one in two people in their lifetime will experience a cancer diagnosis. And so, this is something that all of us are impacted by, whether it's ourselves on a cancer journey, a family member, a close friend, a co-worker. We all are navigating this space," says Williams.

Art from observation

Kristen Schwabauer, an art student in her final semester, participated in the project. As part of her assignment, she took 5-10 minutes to sketch a person receiving treatment. No photography was allowed. Later, Schwabauer completed the portrait off-site, taking inspiration from work by Rembrandt and other classic artists. 

Schwabauer said that one key thing she learned was to trust herself.

"You can't necessarily get down to those nitty-gritty details like lighting and the substance of the portrait sometimes. So taking it is that map you created from that first session and being able to fill in the blanks with just what you've learned," Schwabauer said. "It was very educational and something I'll probably take with me throughout the rest of my art career."

The challenge for the students was not merely to create art but to be keen observers. 

"It comes from a space of observation. You're part of the audience, but you're still the creator. It's a really interesting relationship," says Schwabauer.

Delivering portraits to individuals and families elicited reactions ranging from deep gratitude to profound inspiration. Corewell hosted a reception where subjects received their portraits as gifts. However, not all subjects could attend the event, so Williams personally delivered some of the portraits.

One patient, unaware that he would receive his portrait, found unexpected joy in sharing his story during the artistic process. 

"He said, 'I didn't even know I'd be getting my portrait. I just wanted to do this and sit for my portrait because I'd be able to connect with someone new and talk to someone while I'm getting my treatment,'" Williams shares.

Creating connection

The impact of this collaboration extended beyond the artistic. The elevator installations, for example, transformed the clinical setting into a space of inspiration and wayfinding. 

"The elevator space is small, cramped, very beige. The vinyl design disrupts visually, acts as a wayfinding component, and makes points of connection for people," Williams says.

Wyckoff was present as the students installed their work at the elevators. 

"People were exclaiming that they loved it, that they thought it was so creative," Wyckoff says. "They loved the whimsical nature of it that brought levity to a place that can be serious."

According to Williams, the arts have a real place in every facet of our lived experience, whether it's in healthcare settings, public schools, or in business and retail spaces. Art and design are everywhere, she says.

"There's still the need to connect to real people and tell stories," Williams said. "We use the arts to express people's feelings and what they're going through and to bring folks together. So this really was rooted in bringing communities together to provide a space for that."

As for Schwabauer, she felt honored to be a part of the project. 

"Art functions at its best when it is giving back to the community," says Schwabauer. "It is such a gift. It's positive. It brings joy, especially with this unique project, because not only does it bring in light, but it tries to capture the light of the people who are already existing in that space. So that is really my favorite part of this project."

Laura Bergells is an executive business communications coach from Grand Rapids, Michigan. You can connect with her at LinkedIn.

From furniture to shoes, from arts to education to even policy creation, design is everywhere you look. Designed in Michigan, a story series coming out of West Michigan, is devoted to sharing the expansive role design plays in Michigan's past, present and future. It is made possible through the support of Kendall College of Art and Design and Landscape Forms.
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