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Roswell Park art seeks to soothe the minds of cancer patients

When she was diagnosed with a severe case of Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1999, Buffalo artist Shasti O’Leary Soudant experienced thoughts familiar to any cancer patient who steps through the doors of a hospital: Anxiety. Hope. Fear. Frustration.

The memory of those feelings accompanied her on a tour of Roswell Park Cancer Institute’s Scott Bieler Clinical Sciences Center in February.

“I did six months of chemo, and it was pretty brutal,” she said. “Really understanding that from an incredibly intimate perspective, you understand that as lovely as that building is, there are only three reasons why you walk into it. And two of them absolutely suck.”

After taking in the space, with its razor-sharp angles, pristine city views and austere waiting areas, Soudant decided it needed something soft. The result is her sculptural installation “Wish Field” in the center’s lobby, an array of glinting metal circles with metal tines meant to represent the dandelion seeds children often blow into the air while making a secret wish.

It is one of dozens of local paintings, photographs, sculptures and video pieces carefully chosen for the new building with one purpose in mind: calming the anxious minds of cancer patients, their families and the professionals who treat them.

The selection of the building’s thoughtful art program is the work of the Roswell Park Alliance Foundation Art Committee, made up of staff and community volunteers who conducted dozens of studio visits and curated the art program in four months. Dana Jenkins, Roswell Park’s vice president of organizational performance improvement, said the committee’s work was directed toward its longtime mission of using art to “inspire, distract and support all who seek care and those who provide it.”

“We’re very aware, this is not a museum,” Jenkins said. “This is a place where people come to be diagnosed, to be healed. They’re not coming here to look at art, but we’d like them engage with the art.”

Upon entering the new building through a corridor connecting it to Roswell Park’s main lobby, visitors will find a photo collage featuring images of the new building under construction and the history of the institution by Buffalo photographer and designer Greg Meadows. It hangs across from a declaration of the art committee that the art in the building “is a gift from Western New York artists and other donors who believe that the art of medicine, combined with the joy of the visual arts, can add to the beauty of life.”

As visitors walk into the new center’s lobby, they will encounter Rodney Taylor’s “Song for My Father,” a 15-foot-long painting of birch trees against an abstract background. Taylor painted the piece as a tribute to his father, one of the first African-American employees of Roswell Park and its first X-ray technician.

Aside from Soudant’s installation, a pair of multipanel pieces by Allan Hebeler and paintings by Peter Stephens in a fourth-floor lounge, most of the artwork on display in areas where patients wait or interact with doctors is representational. That came from conversations with patients, who expressed a desire for calming scenes with recognizable elements, Jenkins said.

“Knowing that the purpose of our committee is the healing of the patients,” said art committee member and designer Elaine Jarzynka, “the reason why we do this is to make their stay here a little less focused on that and more on something a little more pleasant.”

That sense of comfort extends into other areas on the floor, including a connecting corridor to the older building lined with stunning botanical photographs by Eileen Graetz and entire rooms given over to watercolors by internationally known local artists Julie McIndoo, Monical Angle, Kathleen Giles, Jody Ziehm and Colin Coots.

For Kathy Schwert, the nurse administrator for Roswell Park’s Breast Center, the art in the building plays a crucial role in visitors’ experiences, chiefly by shifting their mental focus away from illness.

“One person’s interpretation and appreciation of it is different than someone else’s,” Schwert said. “And it invokes conversation other than their illness. It invokes conversation other than the fact that people are sick.”

Jenkins pointed to a family who visited Roswell Park’s former breast clinic and were inspired by a simple painting of a cottage. “They said they just had not been able to talk about what they were going through as a family,” Jenkins said. “Couldn’t use the word ‘cancer,’ couldn’t talk about it. But there was a painting on the wall that reminded one of them of the cottage that they rented in the summer. They started talking about that, and about what they were going to do next summer and if they’d be able to do it. It just allowed them to have a conversation about a really tough topic.”

The artwork in the building extends into the offices of doctors and researchers, where abstract paintings and collages by Kyle Butler, Cassandra Ott and others sometimes mimic – unintentionally or not – cellular structures and chemical compounds. A series of light boxes on the eighth floor, based on an idea from Roswell Park molecular and cellular biology department chairman Kenneth Gross, illuminates stunning abstract images of cancer treatments at the cellular level that resemble images from the Hubble Space Telescope.

The integration of art into the building speaks to a shared desire from the institution and local artists to soften the psychological challenges of diagnosing, treating and curing cancer.

That softness is part and parcel of Soudant’s work, which works its calming magic on visitors the moment they step foot through the doors, just as she did in 1999.

“There’s lots of windows, there’s lots of light, but there was nothing soft there,” Soudant said. “I was thinking about soft and I was thinking about round, and all of a sudden I realized: What do you want when you come in here? What do you need? You’re wishing. You’re wishing for cancer to just not exist.”