Deb Dall (left) and Mary Hollister, St. Joe’s Healing Arts Commission, begin hanging a new art exhibition by local artist Nina Jerome in the lobby of St. Joseph Family Medicine at 900 Broadway on Friday. The St. Joe’s Healing Arts Commission uses art in doctor’s offices and hospital rooms to create areas that feel more welcoming. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Miki MacDonald, a family nurse practitioner with St. Joseph Healthcare in Bangor, said she always tries to make her exam rooms feel homey and welcoming, with paintings on the walls, books of poetry and children’s stories on tables, and other items meant to put patients at ease.

“When you see kind of a frumpy or bare exam room, it speaks to you on some level that there is a lack of care going into the overall approach to a patient’s wellbeing,” MacDonald said. “When you see a piece of art or hear some music, it is something that can hopefully help transcend the often stressful situation that you’re in.”

That idea — to use art to turn doctor’s offices, hospital rooms, waiting areas and testing facilities into places that are more welcoming and a lot less antiseptic and cold — is the guiding principle behind St. Joe’s Healing Arts Commission, an effort started six years ago by a group of staff members and volunteers at the hospital.

MacDonald is one of the commission’s six members, alongside local artists and arts patrons Katie Schaffer, Deb Dall, Jean Deighan and Mary Hollister; St. Joseph Healthcare Foundation senior vice president Brad Coffey; and Justin Benway, also of the foundation. Together, they plan a wide variety of arts programming at all of St. Joe’s various facilities — though it all started with the art cart, an idea had by hospital president Mary Prybylo and now run by volunteer coordinator Renee Peterson.

From left (clockwise): Deb Dall, St. Joe’s Healing Arts Commission, hangs a new art exhibition by local artist Nina Jerome in the lobby of St. Joseph Family Medicine at 900 Broadway on Friday; Photographer LeeAnne Mallonee (left) and Deb Dall (right), St. Joe’s Healing Arts Commission, wrap up Mallonee’s photographs as her exhibit came down and a new winter exhibit went up; Mary Hollister, St. Joe’s Healing Arts Commission, works on hanging artwork by local artist Nina Jerome for the winter exhibition; Deb Dall and Mary Hollister (hands), St. Joe’s Healing Arts Commission, measure the space between pieces of artwork as the hang the winter exhibition by local artist Nina Jerome. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik | BDN

Hospital inpatients are visited by a volunteer with a cart containing a number of prints of paintings and photographs, which are coated in an easily-sanitized plastic. They look through an iPad to make a selection, and then the art they choose is hung in their room for the duration of their stay.

The cart was funded by Sanford Blitz, whose wife, Mona, was a hospice patient at St. Joe’s before she died in 2014. The project has continued throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, as all the art can be sanitized before and after it is brought into a patient’s room. Researchers have found that engaging with art — whether creating or observing it — can help reduce patients’ stress and depression, which can be related to chronic conditions such as heart disease and diabetes.

“I think it’s just a really nice thing for patients, to be visited by someone, and getting to thumb through all these pieces, and choose whatever you want,” Coffey said. “There’s a really wide variety of paintings that appeal to a lot of different people. If you love dogs or cats, there’s prints of that. If you prefer fine art, there’s prints of that as well. The patients really love it.”

Beyond the art cart, works from local artists are displayed throughout both the hospital and St. Joseph’s Healthcare Park at 900 Broadway in Bangor. Schaffer has her photographs from Maine farmers markets displayed in the hospital cafeteria, while murals and installations by local artists can be found in the main lobby, the emergency room and the hospital’s surgery areas. And several times per month, Bangor Symphony Orchestra musicians including violinist Lynn Brubaker and cellist Marisa Solomon come to the hospital to perform on each floor of the facility.

The largest project, however, is the Gallery at 900 Broadway, a permanent gallery that features several shows per year from Maine or Maine-connected artists.

“When the new facility at 900 Broadway opened in 2014, the plan from the outset was that artwork should be built into the building,” Schaffer said. “And so we have this fantastic gallery that has really blossomed into something that I think the artists appreciate as much as our patients, in many ways.”

Over the past six years, Maine artists including Constance Kilgore, Diana Young, Ken Putnam, Joanne Houlsen, Martin Gallant, Mark Nutt, Gail Page, Clyde Folsom and Kat Johnson have all had shows at 900 Broadway. With its gallery, St. Joseph’s has developed a rapport with artists who not only gain exposure for their art, but can sell work if they choose.

Katie Schaffer, St. Joe’s Healing Arts Commission, sets out a biography of local artist Nina Jerome and descriptions of her artwork that is on display in the lobby of St. Joseph Family Medicine at 900 Broadway. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

“I think we’ve developed this really great relationship with the artists we feature, because we treat them well, and we get so much out of it,” Schaffer said. “If you’re coming in for a mammogram, and you can spend a few minutes immersing yourself in something beautiful before it happens, that’s something you can’t put a price on.”

Beyond the fact that simply having art displayed is therapeutic, the art often has an educational or thought-provoking element to it. Artist Maureen Egan, a breast cancer survivor, had a show at the gallery. There have also been collaborations with the University of Maine Museum of Art, which co-sponsored a showing by Robert Shetterly, which included his drawings depicting his grandmother’s dementia, accompanied by workshops and lectures.

Over the past few months, the paintings of Maine artist LeeAnne Mallonee have been displayed, and starting this weekend, landscape works by Bangor painter Nina Jerome will go up for the winter exhibition. The gallery has also been given a donation in order to purchase works by Bangor painter Diana Young, who will donate some of her own works as well.

Schaffer said that the long-term goal is to build an outdoor sculpture garden or art labyrinth at 900 Broadway, in collaboration with neighboring Husson University.

“I think a peaceful place in the woods between Husson and 900 Broadway, where people could go to hear music or simply have a moment of reflection, is something we’d all like to see happen,” Schaffer said.

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Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.