Denise Burns, Under the Umbrella, oil, 36 x 36.
By Lynn Pyne
Four years ago, Geraldine “Gerry” Burke underwent radiation therapy for breast cancer. She knew from reading books on healing that it was vital to fix her mind on something lovely and uplifting a flower garden or a beach during the treatment, but that proved difficult in a hospital environment.
For each of 28 appointments, she trudged down a seemingly endless hospital corridor toward a waiting room that was aesthetically grim except for a television set and a single plant. As a devotee of art and a former administrative staffer at the Heard Museum, Phoenix, AZ, Burke struggled to recall masterworks by Vincent van Gogh in her mind’s eye.
“It requires a lot of self discipline to train your mind to think of other things during radiation,” she says. “You have to lift yourself beyond your actual physical surroundings.”
Donna Howell-Sickles, Garden Help, monotype, 18 x 16.
The experience led to a brainstorm last summer, when Burke read about a new Mayo Center for Women’s Health being constructed in connection with the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, AZ, that would specialize in obstetrics/gynecology, internal medicine, and fertility issues. Having long admired the Mayo Clinic, Burke saw an opportunity to lend comfort to women patients facing some of the same battles she had experienced.
Her mission? To assemble a collection of original fine art by women artists for the new center. Burke sent a proposal to officials at the clinic, who were enthusiastic about the idea. “We were supportive because we agree that it’s bene- ficial to have a beautiful environment with thought-provoking yet soothing art,” says Dr. Marcia Ko, chair of the Division of Women’s Health– Internal Medicine. “We all know the mind is extremely powerful, and people’s ability to deal with health issues is affected by their state of mind. Viewing art provides an opportunity for people to improve their attitude and gain a new perspective”
Louise McCall, White Irises and Calla Lilies, acrylic, 36 x 36.
Burke recruited a diverse group of 34 artists for her project. Some are starting out while others are well-known, and they range in age from 19 to 93. Certain artists were familiar to her and others came through referrals. Burke’s plan was for each participant to receive a $100 honorarium to cover the cost of materials and then donate a piece of their work. Burke donated her efforts as proj-ect developer, overseeing everything from curating the collection to hanging it on the walls. “As women, we have to give to other women,” Burke told the artists. Their response was so positive that Burke had to ask Mayo for permission to accept more works of art than originally planned.
“I’ve been in hospitals and never seen artwork of this kind,” says artist Dyan Nelson. Nelson’s painting Redemption offers a glimpse of sunlight and desert mountains through an open window. “To me, a window represents hope; there is always a new beginning beyond that window,” she says. “It’s important for people who are ill to have something beautiful that speaks to them and gives them hope.”
Shirley Murray, Memories, oil, 30 x 32.
Native American sculptor Elk Woman (Kathy Whitman) of the Mandan/Hidatsa/Arikara tribes created a 10-foot welded-steel sculpture of a woman. Entitled Healing With Harmony, it stands in front of the medical center. “I wanted to promote research and healing for women,” says Whitman. “In the Native American culture, women are respected. Women are holy. Women are the nurturers. People need to be reminded of that.”
At the center’s opening ceremonies in June, a Native American holy man performed a traditional blessing for the facility involving cedar smoke and eagle feathers. Whitman’s sculpted female figure holds an eagle-feather fan symbolizing the healing power of the eagle carrying prayers to the Great Spirit.
Oil painter Shirley Mur-ray credits the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, with early diagnosis of the fast-growing cataracts that were destroying her eyesight when she was 39. “I’m very fond of Mayo,” she says, “and Gerry’s idea was wonderful because it adds an important dimension to the clinic.” Murray’s contribution is Memories, a portrait of a woman sitting on the edge of a bed, lost in thought.
Del Decil, Members of the Board, oil, 24 x 24.
About half the artists created pieces especially for the Mayo collection; others allowed Burke to choose from existing works. Burke sought subject matter that she thought women would understand and relate to figures, florals, beach scenes, and southwestern landscapes. Some artworks might even coax a smile: Mother’s Helper by Bette Bamford depicts a small boy wearing his mother’s apron and rolling out dough, while Elaine G. Coffee’s Young at Heart shows an elderly couple doing the tango.
In Loving Memory of My Mother and Grandmother by Anne Coe is an atypical work for the artist. Known for her socio-political commentaries on the contemporary West full of blazing missiles and wicked coyotes, Coe honored Mayo with a tender, traditional portrait of her grandmother and mother as a little girl, standing close together at the seashore. After seeing a similar portrait by Coe at her sister’s home, Burke convinced the artist to paint another version. The timing was significant, too, as Coe’s mother had recently passed away.
Linda Lee, McDowell Mountain Springtime, oil, 16 x 12.
Coe likes the idea of her painting stirring memories in the patients who see it at the new health center. “When you’re sick, you need to visualize the protective arms of your mother, who nurtured you and gave you life. The patients there are so vulnerable—this painting is as much for them as it is for me.”
In all, 34 artists contributed works to the project. “I’m pleased that these women artists got behind the concept of the women’s health center and our goal, which is to provide comprehensive health care for women,” says Dr. Ko. “The artists have given the patients the visual equivalent of the care that we’re trying to deliver here.”
Featured in November 1997
Elaine G. Coffee, Young at Heart, oil, 20 x 24.
Linda Carter Holman, Stories, oil, 36 x 42.
Sandra Bierman, Playful, oil, 40 x 30.
Betty Carr, Lilies and Tea, watercolor, 21 x 24.