For many, the word ‘ekphrastic’ is hard to find in a dictionary let alone hear its usage in daily speech. Ekphrasis, a Greek word, is a form of writing about art, defined by The Oxford Classical Dictionary as “the rhetorical description of a work of art.”
Edward Hirsch, in his book, The Poet’s Glossary, goes on to say that “The prototype of all ekphrastic poetry is Homer’s description of the shield that Hephaestus is making for Achilles in the Iliad.”(p.195)
Many, many poets and writers from Homer, to W.H. Auden, to William Carlos Williams to Marianne Moore, Anne Sexton, and Ted Hughes have chosen to write about works of visual art housed in museums and galleries. There are various approaches to ekphrastic forms and many points of view, well articulated in Twentieth Century Poetry and The Visual Arts by Loizeaux. But, no one that I know of has written a treatise about viewing art in hospital settings. This the area I have chosen to write from and about.
Anyone who has followed my writing life knows I am very interested in the intersection of art and healing, and in continuing this passion, I began an ekphrastic writing project last January at Swedish Hospital in Seattle (though their new campus in Issaquah also houses a collection), then moved on to Harborview and the University of Washington Medical Center’s art collections. All of these facilities are blessed with wide-ranging forms of visual art from paintings, to sculpture to glass, mixed media and fiber arts. Most of the artists are from the Pacific NW region though there are a few from outside it.
I spent 5 months touring these hospitals, taking pictures and writing poems and essays about various pieces of art, and my reflections on viewing art within a hospital setting. In the coming months I hope to share a few of these pieces with you. In the meantime, here is the philosophy that the U of WA Medical Center states about art and healing:
Art is everywhere in our world and art is essential. Viewing and creating art, as well as listening to music, play an important role in mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health. A growing body of evidence indicates that the presence of artwork, artists and art experiences in the patient-‐care environment benefits patients and their loved ones. Art provides a positive diversion, inspires hope, and contributes to an atmosphere of healing and restoration. In the hospital setting, art addresses the health of the human body and spirit, reminding us of the human connections, life experiences and memories that can support and comfort us as we confront illness.
I encourage you to find your way to one of these locations (not as a patient, hopefully) and take a look for yourself. You are free to wander the halls and clinic waiting rooms where you will find an abundance of pieces. If people ask if they can help you (which is a common question) tell them you are there to view the art. The more they hear this, the better for the life of the collections.