Art, Just for the Health of It

By Lila Herrmann

For as long as she can remember, Colleen Darby wanted to be an artist. She took her first art class around the age of 5 and her mother nurtured her interest. Art became her passion and talent.

Growing up in Buffalo, New York, where she still resides, she realized she might have to work in a safe career to pay the bills. And with a degree in communication design, she did just that, working in advertising for 20 years, even running her own agency at one point while raising her kids. But art still beckoned.

One day in 2008 she got the news that her hours/salary would be cut. It was a disheartening moment. But the very next day she received an email about an initiative for bringing the arts into health care environments. The University of Buffalo Center for the Arts sought out artists to work on the project. “I fully believe there are no accidents. It was serendipitous,” Darby said. “I realized I really wanted to do this.”

Darby took her paint brushes and began working on the oncology floor of Women’s and Children’s Hospital of Buffalo, something she did for three years. As an artist in residence, the goal, Darby said, is to “help patients fall into the creative zone where time and space no longer matter.”

She recalls an afternoon of making paper airplanes with some young patients. A sixth-grader came in, a young boy looking depressed. Darby invited him to join. Hooked to an IV pole, this boy made planes and tossed them for test flights, but airplane retrieval was up to others because of his IV connection. After about 10 minutes or so, however, he was scurrying after planes himself, forgetting he was tethered to a pole.

Darby notes that it is important, when interacting with patients, to be mindful of the space they are in, emotionally and mentally. “I worked every day on the oncology floor. I would go to patients’ rooms and invite them to come work with me on my art projects,” Darby said. “This one patient was friends with everybody. I called her ‘The Mayor.’” On one particular day, Darby walked into this young woman’s room and mentioned, without thought to the patient’s state of mind, that it was such a beautiful day outside. The patient replied, “It always looks the same from here.”

The moment, awkward but powerful, made Darby realize that “every patient deserves a room with a view.” And with that, her project, “A View for a Room: Transforming Healthcare Spaces,” was started, with funding through a Kickstarter campaign suggested by a coworker. The original goal of the funding effort was $10,000. The campaign raised nearly twice that amount.  “I wanted to paint with a purpose. I realized I could help patients. Everything just started to evolve.”

Darby identifies herself as an inspirational artist, and her goal was to provide health care venues with landscape paintings that will give patients a beautiful view, no matter what the setting.

Taking a monthlong sabbatical from her job in 2013, Darby removed herself from the day-to-day distractions and painted for 26 days. “It is important to remove yourself, to clear your mind.” That is when you do your best work, Darby said. “It was amazing they [her employer] let me take the time off. The experience was scary. I didn’t want to let anyone down!”

The paintings, called LandEscapes, provide beautiful images as well as inspirational messages. While working at the hospital, Darby discovered collage and began combining typography with the landscapes.

“Medical environments can be cold and stark. Looking at art, especially nature scenes, matters. It is a vehicle that touches [patients] … it expresses something different for each person,” Darby said. “Subliminally, who knows how much we take in? I am educating medical staff about the importance of environment. Patients are often there for extended periods. Beautiful pictures, soft music, positive surroundings affect patient outcomes.”

Colleen Darby wanted to paint with a purpose. The time became available. An opportunity appeared. The funding overflowed. The Universe spoke. And the world grew a little more beautiful.

In addition to inspirational art, Colleen is cocreator of the story and activity book, Hippos at the Hospital. For more information, visit her site: Colleen Darby Designs: Painting a Better World