Designing Deep Meaning Into Donor Art

"Real art -- as opposed to decorative art -- touches the soul and reaches the viewer emotionally. It expresses energy, life force, and has deep spiritual meaning that can help the viewer transform pain and suffering to reach a higher state of consciousness."

--Jain Malkin, leading healthcare interior designer

When my team of graphic designers and I begin a carved crystal Donor Wall, we approach the work as artists. We are not looking to create something that is merely pretty. We are creating real art, so we start by focusing on the deep meaning of the piece, and we choose for images and symbols that will convey that meaning. Of course, we also add straightforward elements -- a formal appreciation statement, donor names and giving levels, and inspirational quotes.

But often the silent language of the symbolism speaks as loudly to viewers as the literal words we carve into the surface of the crystal. This is because we choose symbols and images rich with associations to our cultural and spiritual history.

“Christina Amri fell into a different category than any of the other donor recognition companies I’m familiar with. Her work is so creative. When I first saw her art, I realized you can have so much more than just names on a wall.”

--Mary Lou McCaa, University Hospital Foundation, University of Utah

A good example of how we design deep meaning into our art glass is our recent installation of a Donor Wall at Community Hospital of Monterey Peninsula. Let me show you that mural and walk you through why we chose the images and symbols you’ll see.
The process began when Amy Goodman, curator for the hospital’s extraordinary art collection, CEO Steve Packer (far right), Foundation head Al Alvarez (far left), and hospital Board members engaged in a very thoughtful dialogue with designer Arlene Rhoden and myself as artists.

This and most of the other photos in this post are by the talented Gabriel Harber

At first glance, the 10-by-18-foot wall of carved and etched glass appears to be simply an image of Monterey Bay, its blue waters sparkling with sunlight and a snowy white egret lifting into flight on the left side of the mural. Had we been designing this wall for display in a private home, a scene of great natural beauty might have been enough. But to create a true work of art, there must be a deeper meaning.

In this case, our Donor Wall needed to symbolize the dedication, skill and vision of the hospital staff as well as the caring, vision and generosity of its donors. The wall, to be situated in the main lobby of the building, also needed to set a positive and reassuring tone for patients and their families entering the hospital.

Thus, we chose to portray the serene, light-dappled waters of Monterey Bay. Water symbolizes healing (the hospital’s role), it is life-giving, it nourishes our body and spirit. Water is an important symbol in most spiritual beliefs, Western and Eastern alike. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, God is called "the fountain of living waters." In addition, water symbolizes wisdom (a reference to the skill of the medical staff).

At Community Hospital of Monterey Peninsula, water is also a key feature of the physical environment. Ponds and fountains provide refreshing and relaxing elements inside and outside the buildings. For all of these reasons, we chose to use an expanse of water as the background for our Donor Wall.

The theme of water was picked up again in the deep V-carved quote about generosity from Maya Angelou, words which span nearly the full width of the mural:

When we cast our bread upon the waters,

we can presume that someone downstream
whose face we will never know
will benefit from our action,
as we who are downstream from another
will profit from that grantor’s gift.

Next we wanted to bring in symbols signifying the latest scientific discoveries to express the hospital’s joint mission of compassionate care with cutting-edge medicine. Across the foot of the mural we added short columns of bars, which are stylized images of DNA fragments that have been separated and sorted by size, an essential first step in a creating a genetic profile of an individual.

These floating bars morph beautifully into the patterns of light dappling the sunlit waters. And, because DNA contains our inherited genetic code, this imagery also symbolizes the passing of gifts from one generation to another -- from the hospital’s community leaders and generous donors of the past to those of the future. Lastly, these bars or boxes serve to mirror the distinctive decorative features built into the hospital by its original architect, the renowned Edward Durell Stone.

On the left of the mural, we added the image of an egret spreading its wings either to land or take flight. Incorporating a living creature into the scene brought life, warmth, and a sense of scale to the Donor Wall. It helps viewers connect with the entire mural. Symbolically, birds stand for hope, an important subconscious message for patients and their families. Birds also soar, and the upward movement of the bird portrayed here implies the soaring of thought, spirit and imagination.

Because the egret is shown at the moment it breaks free in flight, it symbolizes Community Hospital’s role as a courageous agent of change and leadership. Immediately to the right, a 23-karat-gold-leafed quotation from local poet Robinson Jeffers ties in with the image:

Lend me the stone strength of the past
and I will lend you the wings of the future,
for I have them.

These inspiring words connect Community Hospital’s tremendous legacy of philanthropy with the promise of an innovative and hope-filled future. They speak to the importance of blending a strong foundation with visionary innovation. (All the quotations we used are from local figures and were collaboratively chosen with help from the hospital foundation. They all “speak to each other” within the design and help form the “graphic landscape.”)

Last of all, and I confess it will be hard to show you here, is the symbolism in the colors and timing of the lighting system we programmed. Soft, multicolored LEDs illuminate the crystal panels in a subtle four-minute cycle patterned after the 24-hour cycle of a day. It begins with the pinks and yellows of sunrise, moves into the brighter light of day, then softens into the turquoise of sunset and the cobalt blue of nighttime. (If you click on the side-by-side image above, you can best see the colors shift in the curving lines at the upper right.)The lighting never shuts off, just as the work of Community Hospital never ends. Both continue day and night, providing healing, inspiration and solace for all who visit.

Al Alvarez, Chief Development Officer of the Community Hospital Foundation, says that patients, staff and volunteers alike are often found standing reverently in front of the wall, “as if they were in church.”

True art, unlike mere graphics, works on many levels. It communicates explicitly and implicitly. It thanks, honors, recognizes, and acclaims. It inspires and it comforts. It touches on our shared history and points toward a mutual and positive future. This is our goal for every work of Donor Art that we create.

P.S. Jain Malkin, whose quote I used at the beginning of this post, is working with us right now on an amazing project. Stay tuned to see what we do with the interactive Kettering Tribute at the beautiful new Schuster Heart Hospital in Kettering, Ohio.