School of Art students create works for Soulard health clinic

Over the past year, eight ceramics and sculpture majors in the School of Art have designed, proposed, constructed and installed a series of site-specific artworks for the Soulard Neighborhood Health Center, 2028 S. 12th St.

Victoria Sher, a senior ceramics major in the School of Art, shows off one of three hand-painted windows she created for patient examination rooms at Grace Hill's Soulard Neighborhood Health Center.
Victoria Sher, a senior ceramics major in the School of Art, shows off one of three hand-painted windows she created for patient examination rooms at Grace Hill’s Soulard Neighborhood Health Center.

The clinic, part of the Grace Hill Neighborhood Health Centers Inc., provides primary and preventive health care to low-income and uninsured residents. The works of art, which range from stained-glass windows and ceramic mosaics to custom furniture and Braille signage, were formally dedicated May 7.

“These are major projects, major pieces,” said Ron Fondaw, professor of art and head of the ceramics major area, who led a similar initiative at Grace Hill’s South Health Center, 3400 Jefferson Ave., in 2001-02. Both Grace Hill projects, he explained, are part of the ceramics program’s “ongoing commitment to public practice and making artworks that are contextualized by public space.”

Students began working with the Soulard site in spring 2003, when nurse supervisor Daniel Orlet invited them to tour the facility and meet with patients and staff. Projects were largely conceptualized over the summer, then refined in early fall and presented for approval to Grace Hill administrators in October.

“We had a few minor suggestions about making things kid-safe, that sort of thing,” Orlet said. “Basically, we just reminded the students about the kind of environment they’d be putting the work in.”

In the end, all eight proposals submitted were given the green light. Construction and fabrication took place in late fall and throughout the spring, with materials and equipment donated by the School of Art and local businesses.

“This is not the clean, white gallery box,” Fondaw pointed out. “It’s a working environment.

“The challenge is to create something that functions aesthetically while remaining sensitive to the variety of people who use the space. And I think each student has done that in their own way.”

For example, senior Erik Peterson addressed his work specifically to younger patients, fashioning a pair of large, cartoon-like animal sculptures.

The first is a friendly, yellow-and-orange ceramic lion who smiles reassuringly from a waiting room wall, a clock cradled in his belly. The second is a 30-inch-tall monkey grinning down from a ceramic branch suspended in the corner of a patient examination room.

“They are happy and fun and make people laugh,” Peterson said. The point, he added, was simply to make kids’ time at the clinic “a little less scary, less stressful, less sterile.”

Senior Margaret Harris aimed her work — a group of semi-circular clay tiles installed on the clinic’s front facade — at another audience: the visually impaired. Located beneath a 10-foot-long plate-glass window, the tiles at first glance appear to be a kind of contemporary twist on the old brick building’s existing architectural embellishment.

Upon closer inspection, however, one realizes that they are in fact a Braille rendering of a quote (also printed on the window above) by the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates: “Wherever the art of medicine is loved, also is there love of humanity.”

Senior Lauren Nagle and master’s candidate Connie Williams also engaged architectural elements, enlivening an otherwise bland waiting room by wrapping a pair of ceramic mosaics around two steel support columns. The swirling, abstract designs, built largely of triangular shapes, are also reprised in Nagle’s complimentary quartet of stained glass windows.

“Our goal was to enhance the room itself, instead of adding extra clutter,” Williams said. “The new colored light and patterns created in the room help change the clinical feel of the waiting area into a warm and exciting place.”

Senior Victoria Sher also focused on windows and light, installing in three adjacent examination rooms a trio of frosted-glass panes, each bearing a hand-painted image.

Rendered in glowing, transparent enamel colors, Sher’s windows — which depict a doctor examining a child, a medical diagram of a fetus in-utero and an abstracted chest X-ray — flood the rooms in natural sunlight; yet, thanks to a cleverly conceived framing system, also allow fresh air to circulate without sacrificing privacy.

Other projects include window treatments by Laura Fry and Melissa Scott; and Katy Scoggin’s stuffed vinyl seating that was inspired by the stomach and pancreas.

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