Healing Art 

Adrienne Outlaw’s installation at Vanderbilt University Medical Center offers calmness and community while also raising some complex questions

Adrienne Outlaw’s installation at Vanderbilt University Medical Center offers calmness and community while also raising some complex questions

By David Maddox

Adrienne Outlaw, “Vessels of Grace”

Vanderbilt University Hospital, Main Lobby, Mezzanine Level

Through April 2004

This month, the Vanderbilt University Hospital installed a new piece of public art, “Vessels of Grace,” designed by Adrienne Outlaw and constructed through the collective efforts of a large number of people in the Vanderbilt and Nashville community. It will occupy a wall on the mezzanine level overlooking the main lobby of the hospital through April. The work looks great, a credit to Outlaw’s design vision, and it brings up interesting questions of artistic production and patronage, and the religious and devotional content of art that exists outside a clear liturgical context.

When approached to do a work on healing for the Medical Center, Outlaw had a very important insight—the absolutely incredible number of people who go into the healing process at a hospital like Vanderbilt. The university is the largest private employer in Middle Tennessee, and most of its staff work in the Medical Center. A patient interacts with many people at the hospital—nurses, therapists, doctors, receptionists—and is served by numbers of unseen staff like medical records clerks, custodians, electricians, pharmacists and lab technicians. In addition, patients and families themselves are part of the process. Outlaw seems acutely attuned to the human dimension of this, that so many people come together in one place to work toward healing. It is a wonderful vision of the hospital.

“Vessels of Grace” consists of a long wall of open boxes constructed out of brass wire mesh sheets, each of which holds a basket made from the same wire mesh. The baskets contain rolled-up slips of colored paper, on which people at the hospital—patients, family, staff and others—have written their prayers and concerns. The Wailing Wall is an obvious precursor. I enjoyed the piece most from a distance, where it’s possible to take in the play of textures across its length. Even though it is made from metal, from a distance, light doesn’t reflect off of it so much as glow quietly from within. The paper notes peek out from the top of the baskets, their colors creating quick flashes and patterns that interrupt the more continuous tone of the metalwork. Up close, the metal appears more like metal, light glinting off it, and you see that each basket has a unique design from fold patterns, holes punched in the mesh or pieces of heavier wire or metal woven through it. The physical quality of this work introduces serenity and calmness into a busy environment.

In response, she designed a process as well as an artwork. Each of those metal boxes and baskets needed to be hand-sewn, so she invited people associated with Vanderbilt and other community groups (such as the Frist Center and Congregation Micah) to help. She enlisted Ben Roosevelt, a student from the Divinity School, to talk to patients and families and get from them the initial statements that were inserted in the baskets. She also had significant support from two studio assistants, Matthew Rogers and Amy Fleischer, and got input on materials preservation from objects conservator Shelley Paine.

Creation of artwork is an interesting way to foster community. The imperfections and variations in the piece reflect the hands of many people, but the members of this community are anonymous as individuals. None of the baskets bear the identifiable signature of their maker. The most singular and personal expression occurred in the handwritten notes, but the writing isn’t visible; the messages are private. There is no question that the work is appealing to look at, because the individual efforts were subsumed within Outlaw’s design vision. A similar piece designed on an ad hoc basis by the community itself would be a mess. It might be charming in a rambling way, but it would not achieve the same kind of architectural, tonal and textural effectiveness.

The nature of production that went into this work finds an echo in the collective nature of health care in a large modern hospital. These organizations are characterized by heroic efforts to heal, but also by the marshaling of financial and human resources for common purpose. Command and control are essential if chaos, and terrible results, are not to ensue. Power is distributed and wielded. Within this context, each part of the operation has an assigned role in delivering care and achieving the goals of the hospital. These include healing patients and medical discovery, but also achieving financial stability in a competitive marketplace.

The nature of production that went into this work finds an echo in the collective nature of health care in a large modern hospital. These organizations are characterized by heroic efforts to heal, but also by the marshaling of financial and human resources for common purpose. Command and control are essential if chaos, and terrible results, are not to ensue. Power is distributed and wielded. Within this context, each part of the operation has an assigned role in delivering care and achieving the goals of the hospital. These include healing patients and medical discovery, but also achieving financial stability in a competitive marketplace.

This raises a question: In commissioning Outlaw’s piece, was the Medical Center engaged in patronage or procurement? By patronage, I mean simply a flexing of financial muscles. The Medical Center is a rich organization, and for any number of reasons it might seem appropriate to acquire art as a way of showing good taste or sharing the wealth. By procurement, I mean that the Medical Center thinks “Vessels of Grace” somehow fits into its enterprise, that the piece contributes to healing, research or financial goals. The latter is the more interesting possibility, and it’s more consistent with the fact that the art-buying is conducted by a special office, the Office of Cultural Enrichment.

This still doesn’t answer the question of how the Medical Center thinks the work fits into its efforts. The title word “grace” is the obvious place to look. In Christianity, grace refers to God’s action of forgiving sin and imbuing humans with a power greater than their own. In the words of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, it allows a “reconstruction of the self” broken by sin—a kind of spiritual healing. In other traditions, grace is taken to mean divine blessing (one of the meanings of barakah in Islam), or a divine presence that permeates the world. Rabbi Ken Kanter of Congregation Micah links grace to the Jewish concepts of rahmanut and chessed, which refer to compassion and mercy toward others. Grace of course has secular meanings, but by soliciting prayers and concerns, this work puts us in the realm of spiritual practice.

Viewed in this light, one assumes that the Medical Center sees the work as a means to invoke prayer and grace (God’s grace for any believers) in support of its healing work. The odd point of this is that Vanderbilt is nominally a secular institution. Modern medicine is dedicated to the scientific solution of problems, and one expects Vanderbilt to have no ambivalence in its commitment to this approach to healing. If this piece were at St. Thomas or Baptist, one would see it as an extension of leadership’s literal belief that God plays an active role in healing. Where does supernatural power stand at Vanderbilt? Here, one suspects that the commitment to prayer is a bit hedged—maybe evidence from studies shows that praying helps in healing, but one can remain agnostic about whether it is due to God’s action or the improved psychological state of the person who prays.

Or maybe there’s an element of commerce at work. Hospitals in Middle Tennessee compete for customers—patients. You might not have noticed, but people around here are very religious. That would seem to give faith-based organizations (St. Thomas, Tennessee Christian Medical Center, etc.) a leg up with the churchgoing part of the local healthcare market. So Vanderbilt has its “Hearts and Minds” campaign and installs “Vessels of Grace.”

Yes, this is a very cynical interpretation, but it underlines the dilemmas facing modern artworks that engage spiritual and religious questions. “Vessels of Grace” is similar to older works, such as altarpieces or chapels, that served a devotional purpose. Like those, it is architectural and intended to be used actively by the people who encounter it. It employs similarly lustrous materials. But there is a difference, in that those older pieces existed within a distinct religious structure: installed in dedicated religious spaces, and often embedded in a more homogenous society. Today, artworks usually sit in secular places like galleries or the lobby of a nondenominational hospital. Any theological content tends to be open-ended, allowing a diverse population to project individual beliefs and purposes onto the work. This can lead to some vagueness in the work’s intent or impact.

“Vessels of Grace” has had several lives so far. In its construction, a large number of people had a hand in the production of art at a high level. Now installed, the work succeeds in providing a bit of peace in the midst of a busy environment where people come together to grapple with life and death. This piece offers much to appreciate even as it raises many questions.

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