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Hospital art for health's sake

Cat Powell, Arts for Health co-ordinator at the Children's Hospital, Sheffield
Cat Powell is Arts for Health co-ordinator at the Children's Hospital in Sheffield

By Grace Parnell
BBC Sheffield & South Yorkshire

You've heard the phrase 'art for art's sake' - well at the Children's Hospital in Sheffield it's 'art for health's sake'.

Many people, when they imagine a children's ward, think of murals of Winnie the Pooh, rainbows and balloons on the walls… a pile of second hand teddies and plastic toys in the corner… a few dog-eared books.

But it's not like that at the Children's Hospital in Sheffield. One of the most striking things about it is the fact it is actually a pleasant environment. Unexpected, considering that its main function is to look after seriously ill children.

Yes, it is a sobering and moving place, but it is also uplifting.

Part of that is down to the effort that has been put into the decoration to make it a bright, cheerful and welcoming place for children, their families, staff and visitors.

Gingerbread man picture
This gingerbread man was done by one of the children in the workshops

It might still be a hospital, but it's an art gallery too. The walls and ceilings are painted with colourful themes like the seaside, jungle or space; dozens of artworks by children and artists line the walls of the corridors and wards; the lighting has been designed to make the most of small and clinical spaces; and special lino has been commissioned in a variety of colours and designs.

It's thanks to the Children's Hospital Charity that the hospital has been able to put so much emphasis on using the environment to improve the mood of patients, parents, staff and visitors.

The Charity believes that art improves health, and each year they raise £65,000 for the Arts for Health programme. The Arts for Health co-ordinator's job is to organise artist workshops for the patients, commission pieces for the hospital, and have a say in the decoration and refurbishment of areas in the building.

Cat Powell studied illustration at art college, then worked in admin at the Children's Hospital while studying counselling and art therapy:

"Sheffield has one of the leading Children's Hospitals in the country," she says. "It's great if the environment can reflect that.

"Pleasant and stimulating surroundings can help recovery. If you have an inspiring environment - whether calm, invigorating or fun, it improves people's emotional state and well-being."

Textile workshop at the Children's Hospital, Sheffield
The patients do all sorts of workshop activities, from felt-making to mosaics

Artists come to the hospital to do workshop at least once a week; activities like felt-making, textiles and mosaics. If a patient can't get out of bed, the artist will bring an activity to their bedside.

"The workshops with the artists relieve anxiety and stress about being in hospital," says Cat. "We have a lot of fun and it gives the kids a break from being ill.

"They go from one frame of mind to being happy and uplifted and excited about the art they've produced, all on the same day."

Many of the artists who do workshops have studios at the Yorkshire Artspace in Sheffield. Andy Heath is one local artist who has created a huge mosaic at the entrance to the critical care unit, and Seiko Kinoshita's weavings and textiles appear on the corridor walls.

Corridor at the Children's Hospital
Special lino and wall decorations give these corridors a road theme

As well as commissioning artwork, the arts co-ordinator's job is to get involved in the redecoration and refurbishment of the hospital and there are very few areas without some sort of decoration on the walls, floor and ceiling. The operating theatres have an underwater theme with fish, seahorses and bubbles on the walls, while other corridors are laid out with street signs and double yellow lines; snakes and fish in the lino lead the way to departments, and a space scene is painted around the whole of the CT scanner room.

The decorations give the hospital a bright, welcoming feel - but they also serve to distract the children from the frightening situation of being in hospital.

Radiographer Steve Howe explains why the ceiling decorations are so important in the CT scanner room: "The scanner is a frightening thing for children to go through, so the rockets and spaceships are painted on the ceiling to distract the kids' attention."

The new scanner will be much more advanced, as Steve explains: "Instead of taking four scans each time, it'll take 64. A head scan currently takes 20 seconds but the new one will take six seconds. It will be a big improvement."

BBC Sheffield is raising £500,000 for a new CT scanner to make the scanning process much quicker and less traumatic. You can help the appeal by donating via the link below:

Japanese textile artist Seiko Kinoshita was commissioned to create weavings for the walls. Parents pacing the corridors and waiting anxiously for the latest news on their seriously ill child can now become absorbed by the intricate weavings, rather than being confronted with brash, childish motifs like Winnie the Pooh.

Weavings by Seiko Kinoshita
Weavings by Seiko Kinoshita are displayed in the Critical Care Unit

"Children's hospitals often focus on things like daisy floor patterns, jungle murals and Disney characters which date too quickly," explains Cat. "Poorly children are not always aware of their surroundings, but when they are they can actually appreciate a wider range of art than adults give them credit for."

In the future, Cat hopes to establish a permanent art gallery and exhibition area on one of the corridors. The hospital's main entrance is currently being redesigned, and after that Cat starts work on the environment in a new under 18's Mental Health Service due to open in Beighton in 2010-11.

The Children's Hospital in Sheffield is a sobering and moving place, but thanks to the dedication of the staff and the effort to make it a pleasant and uplifting environment, it is also an inspiring place. It's hard to describe what a difference this environment makes to a place which would otherwise be sterile, clinical and pretty sad.

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