Art in Healing: The Integration of Story, Structure, Site

January 21, 2021
Public Art

Exploring the power of art to develop community identity and connection that encourages collective healing.

As artists, we believe art should be a part of our everyday existence. Many turn to the arts (visual, music, literature, among others) to make connections between who we are and how we feel about and connect with others and the world around us. Art’s role in healing is nothing new. Art therapy has been used for decades to help people explore their emotions, improve self-esteem, manage addictions, relieve stress and symptoms of anxiety and depression and cope with physical illness or disability. In health care, research shows that integrating creative arts into a treatment plan can help reduce the length of hospital stays, lessen pain and decrease health care-related infection rates.

On an individual level, art allows people to have shared experiences, and sharing in that moment is what connects us to one another. The power in that connection, the act of sharing something together and talking about it, creates the feeling that we’re a part of something larger. For communities – whether it be a senior living community, a VA hospital or an entire city or town – art has the power to create places that help those communities develop an identity, affirm communal connections and ultimately, cultivate a collective sense of healing and well-being.

Engaging to Listen and Understand: Story, Structure, Site

Creating an art experience that represents, speaks to and helps heal a community starts with listening. There is no one single process, but the key component to every project is that it starts with careful listening. One of the most helpful things we do is ask questions to draw out answers. Rather than inserting ourselves into the conversation, we actively observe and absorb the responses. Recognizing the connections communities are trying to develop to affirm an identity or understand why they feel connected to one another or to a mission or vision is the spark of inspiration, and it starts with actively listening to the people within those communities. We have become translators, sensitive to place and the underlying narrative of a given location and purpose.

Another aspect of listening (at least in pre-COVID-19 times) involves physically being there. Going to a place and seeing the artifacts that are important to the people and the community – the “deep dive” or immersion and the discoveries that occur, allowing yourself to be “the distracted child,” taking everything in – that’s where inspiration and authentic responses begin to form. Asking questions to best understand the needs of users is the most effective way to create a place or individual piece of art that welcomes people into the story and the process of healing.

The design process for the Aguas onduladas (rippling waters) art installation in San Antonio, Texas was informed through site visits and community input meetings. Collaboration extended to collecting input from a local fabricator (Garces) who would ultimately build and install the work. Photo by Matt Niebuhr.

To create a place that not only helps tell the story but also plays a role in moving the story forward in a meaningful and transformative way, we must fully understand the people, the history and the connections that make up the story itself. The process of designing and creating a meaningful public art installation often requires the rejection of one, overarching style. Every project we work on is unique to the site because the story itself changes from site to site. Context-sensitive design, that is design that draws on imagery from the local site or environment, can evoke feelings of connection and familiarity. Site is really about being specific to the place; different locations have different contexts, so it’s critical to engage those people who live and work in a given location. This is the public that will shape and be shaped by the experience. This is a primary role and responsibility of public-art integration.

Art is more than just something we passively look at; healing art, especially healing art created for public spaces, often involves a structure or structures that encourage physical interaction: an object people can sit on, touch, go underneath or through. By creating a physical connection with the art (e.g. a doorway people go through, the shade of a sculptural canopy they sit beneath, a pavilion they enter) we create a sense of containment, an experience of being contained within, and in this moment, we are together in the story.

Art in Healing in Practice

Art in healing goes well beyond putting pictures of flowers up and down the hallway – it involves a deep understanding of a story and a site so that we can thoughtfully integrate culturally-contextual structures. The work depends largely on many different elements orchestrated in a way that welcomes the public into an experience that then moves them in some way.

One specific example of story is our work with the city of Leawood, Kansas to design a site-specific installation for the Leawood Justice Center. Our primary design challenge was to interpret “justice” without using the cliché image of “Lady Justice.” Likewise, the installation’s prominent location called for a sensitive understanding of scale and speed of travel, both in respect to the pedestrians on the walking/running trail that wraps the site, as well as for vehicles in the busy traffic corridor in front of the building.

Working closely with the City Council and an independent art consultant, RDG’s Art Studio performed extensive research to develop the concept. Throughout the process, we shared freehand sketches, three-dimensional computer Sketch-Up models, site plans and revisions with stakeholders, engaging in frequent meetings and dialogue to create a meaningful and contextual connection between “justice” and place. The resulting installation, “the weight of your heart / the weight a feather” speaks to the origins of the concept of balance represented in contemporary icons through the balance scales of justice dating back to ancient Egypt more than 5,000 years ago. The illuminated scale or fulcrum, representing the idea of balance and judgment, makes a comparison in weight between the “ideal” and the “real,” and in so doing, evokes a measurement of truth, virtue, justice and equality. For centuries, philosophers, scientists, writers and artists have looked to nature to help find order and balance, and to better relationships between one another. As such, the forms and patterns of the installation include symbolic connections between nature and justice, featuring the Sweet Chestnut tree, the Rudbeckia and Coltsfoot as interpretations of “Do me Justice,” “Innocence” and “Justice shall be Done.”

the weight of your heart / the weight of a feather in Leawood, Kansas by the Art Studio RDG. Photo by Steve Gibson Photography.

The sculpture now serves as an anchor to the city’s public art collection and government campus. It also functions as a “storied structure,” a place where visitors can pause and reflect and are invited to learn more. “the weight of your heart / the weight of a feather” has become a symbolic landmark that speaks to a deeper understanding of the Justice Center’s greater purpose and place within the community, helping to heal the divisions of “us vs. them” and instead move toward a collective “we.”

One of the most powerful aspects of public art’s role in healing is that people who aren’t expecting to have an aesthetic experience are allowed to engage in one of spontaneous discovery, “a moment of personal space and reflection within the public realm.” This could be while they are waiting for the bus, on a walk or bike ride or heading to lunch. Public art takes these unexpected moments and transforms them into something meaningful. By integrating story, structure and site we sensitively respond to context and use it to create a collective artistic experience that is the path to healing.

The integration of artwork (art in healing) in its myriad forms – whether music, literature, sculpture, painting, the natural environment and more – is the path that takes us from one place and time to another. In the process, we explore and understand ourselves, emotionally and physically. This is the transformative, restorative and healing process, a relationship that connects us to each other and to the world around us.

Written by Matt Niebuhr, Artist