January 30, 2014

The art of healing

Jungles and underwater worlds give pediatric patients a bright distraction from treatment.

Happy jungle animals swinging from branches, napping in the shade and enjoying a lazy day greet the sick children who arrive for outpatient treatment at the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center.

These funny animals from the brush of muralist Kent Peterson transform “drab” spaces in the pediatric infusion center to help children cope with needed infusions, such as chemotherapy.

Five-year-old Cooper Cochran was one of those children, an outpatient at the infusion center since he was 20 months old. But after three and a half years of treatment, on Saturday he was ready to celebrate the end of his therapy for high-risk acute lymphoblastic leukemia. As he waited for his party to begin, he pointed to a tree hollow in Peterson’s mural and exclaimed, “I see something with eyes.” Then he guessed, “Maybe a bear.”

Cooper likes “monkeys of all kinds,” said his mother, Cherie Trout, explaining Cooper’s interest in the colorful jungle mural in the children’s waiting/play area. Large gorillas, chimpanzees and baboons stand in the foreground, but most noticeable are the animals’ broad, irresistible smiles.

Her son’s treatment has given Trout plenty of time with Peterson’s artwork, which she described as a “positive distraction” from a child’s illness.

“Any time a child is involved in anything that the hospital does to help them through their process, their journey,” she said, “it’s not just therapeutic for the child, but for the parent who has to endure this while the child is enduring it.”

Approximately 80 patients a year receive treatment in the infusion center, many of them children like Cooper, who with his mother saw the first floor of the new medical wing become a happier place with butterflies, frogs and a waterfall, thanks to Peterson’s paintings.

When the 52-year-old Rocklin artist began his mural last summer, the walls of the three-story wing, which opened in September 2012, were still “a white canvas,” said Trout. “It was so new, so empty, so cold.”

Peterson turned one of those white walls into a fantasy jungle and another into an imaginative underwater world. He also converted an obtrusive pillar into a tree trunk where a grinning purple snake is impossible to miss. Another pillar became the backdrop for a large cuddly panda. Seagulls pose above the treatment bays.

The artwork soon “blossomed into something really fun, something beautiful,” said Jeanine Stiles, the cancer center’s associate director for administration. “Everyone here feels when you see something beautiful on the walls, it takes you someplace beyond the infusion center.”

Peterson’s art can be labeled “healing art,” according to Dorsey Griffith, senior public information officer at the cancer center. Hallways near the infusion center showcase handpicked photographs and framed art, which like Peterson’s murals possess “qualities we feel would promote comfort and healing for families.”

The more than 2,000 pieces in the medical center’s art collection are a part of the healing mission, according to Susan Willoughby, who curates that collection, which represents more than 250 artists from the region served by the medical center.

Peterson was chosen unanimously by an administrative committee to do a 12-by-8-foot jungle mural to brighten up a corner of the infusion center known as Keaton’s Korner, named for Keaton Raphael, a Roseville child who died of neuroblastoma in 1998 at age 5. A foundation created by his parents funded the mural project.

It was so popular with visitors and staff that the administrative committee commissioned a second, larger mural on the wall facing two isolation rooms. Patients who desire or require privacy during their infusion treatment can now see from their beds an elaborate ocean scene, complete with a sunken ship and dolphins.

The artist describes his work as both “realistic and Disney-like,” and says he puts smiles on the animals “whenever possible” so they don’t scare the children.

“If I could do only this, I’d be a happy guy, “ said Peterson, who worked about a month on the two murals. The self-taught artist, who first picked up a paintbrush 13 years ago, also does faux painting – faux stone, faux marble, and Old World faux finishes – and performs as guitarist and lead vocalist in a classic rock band, Renegade.

He said he “lucked out getting this job doing healing art,” but Jeanine Stiles sees it another way. “His art clearly stood out,” she said.

When the two murals were completed in the pediatric infusion center, Peterson started another one for the medical center – a similar ocean scene, but 120 feet long beneath the windows of a hallway leading to the children’s surgery center. “Probably the biggest one I’ve done,” he said. The mural depicts deep ocean life at one end of the wall and shore life at the other end.

Staff wanted a mural to complement underwater photographs by Dr. James Brandt, an ophthalmologist at the medical center, which are displayed on an opposing wall.

Peterson said he begins his murals with a skeleton layout, adding details as he paints, and in this case, he happily incorporated ideas he received from patients and families. Because he worked after hours in the pediatric infusion center, there was little opportunity for interaction with the patients, but in the children’s surgery center he painted during the daylight hours and received many positive comments.

He used hospital-approved acrylics that are odorless and can be touched and washed without harming the art. He begins his murals by painting the background first, adding details and foreground elements later. He uses online pictures to add realism to the animals he paints. (He says he can paint anything if he can find a picture of it.)

Like a spectator who wonders what the finished product will look like, Peterson sometimes surprises himself with the details he spontaneously chooses.

“Everyone loves” the mural, said Evangeline Nidoy, a clerk in the reception area of the children’s surgery center. “The most fun is Nemo and Dory,” who can be found hiding in the reef.

Nidoy said the mural is “extremely” therapeutic, not just for patients, but for family members as well. “For the parents that are pacing up and down the halls, at that moment they are not thinking about their worries. They actually get to be immersed in a fantasy world, forgetting almost what they’re here for,” she said.

Another Peterson mural may be forthcoming for the UC Davis adult cancer center, but the project will depend upon funding, which Peterson says is a typical concern for hospitals intent on bringing art to their walls.

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