“Aquifer I” by Wendy Pabich, is acrylic and pumice on canvas.
A hospital stay can be an emotionally harrowing time for all involved. Much contemplation of heavy issues is often done throughout the halls.
As the medical world has shifted to more holistic views in caregiving, the design and décor of hospitals has become more sensitive to the whole health-care experience.
At St. Luke’s Wood River in Ketchum, Katie Pratt has spent much of the past 14 years curating collections of local artists to hang throughout the main building, offices and rooms.
Artists get badly needed exposure, for free, and visitors can roam the enhanced spaces like a minimuseum, which rotates its inventory every six months. There are also permanent donations, and recently a cabinet has been dedicated to young artists from area schools.
Pratt has an extensive background in art history and archiving, which allows her to administer the program creatively but on a small budget.
It’s that eye, passion for art, artists and compassion for people that fuels her work at the hospital.
“The hospital, for me, is a nice combination of taking care of the art and acting as a liaison between the artist and the viewer, which is really important to me,” she said.
Pratt said she presses for original works rather than posters or prints because “subliminally, it makes a difference.”
She has received great feedback over the years from people working there, because being able to lose themselves in a piece of work for even a moment can help reduce stress and energize a building and its people.
“While people don’t come here for the art, we do sell about four
pieces a year,” she said.
The hospital once took a commission from the artists to support the program, but that path was eliminated early as hospital administrators recognized the value of providing art to patients and of performing a community service to local artists. In addition, it was a boost to the local economy.
Curating art in a public place often has inherent challenges not experienced in a gallery setting. People in hospitals are rarely there by choice alone and curators like Pratt are charged with reflecting a comforting, stimulating—but not too stimulating—inoffensive yet provocative showcase that also can withstand the people and exposure inherent in a sterile setting.
Pratt said they have tried to incorporate ideas for a gallery walk to encourage visitors, but there are limits to how and when you can do that within the hospital framework. Still, she has seen the venue give mileage to artists.
“It gives artists the
opportunity to show their work and gain exposure in a space which is public; and also serves as an inspirational capacity to those who need to heal.”
Melissa Graves Brown
“Lori McNee, when she was starting out, we showed her work and she wasn’t the rock star artist that she is now, and then Kneeland picked her up,” Pratt recalled. “It was good for her confidence, and to get feedback. There are a number of very talented people who create but don’t exhibit and this can help them make the transition.”
McNee said that when she was first approached about the inaugural program, she was flattered, but didn’t grasp the scope of the project.
“Until one day I had a loved one in the operating room. While pacing the art-filled hospital halls, I found momentary comfort and release,” she said. “Paintings are like windows to our imagination, and the hospital art program offers a respite from the worry and waiting.”
Another early example is artist Melissa Graves Brown. Her “Pleasantrees” series of imaginative Idaho landscapes has taken her from waitressing to pay the bills into a full-time career in her profession.
“I feel the rotating art shows at the hospital are terrifically important to our local artists but more important to the patients,” she said. “To bring color and light into the health-care industry is a personal challenge of mine.
“Katie is amazing at bringing together artists to create a brilliant show. It gives artists the opportunity to show their work and gain exposure in a space which is public, and also serves as an inspirational capacity to those who need to heal.”
“The art program is mutually beneficial in that it beautifies and adds comfort to the hospital while allowing the local artists to showcase their best artwork,” she said. “As a bonus, displaying my art in the hospital even led to some sales.”
Exhibits are usually based around a neutral subject like flowers or birds. In spring, the show will be farm-themed.
The latest show, “Natural World—Patterns in Nature,” displays imagery of nature by a group of renowned local painters, photographers and mixed-media artists, including Christopher Brown, Melissa Graves Brown, Nolina Burge, Sher Foster, Lee Higman, Lisa Holley, Christine Jakober, Annie May, Wendy Pabich, Steve Padgitt, Eileen Shelly and Valerie Stuart.
The new exhibit complements the St. Luke’s Wood River fine art collection, an array of more than 200 pieces of contemporary art, including paintings, photographs and sculptures generously donated to the medical center or on long-term loan from local art collectors. The works can be seen throughout the hallways, in waiting areas and in patient rooms.
Having spent the first five years as a volunteer, than a contracted employee, Pratt has built a trust relationship with artists and grown the pool. There have been artists who pull up with a carload of propositions, but she said “it doesn’t really work that way.”
This year’s formation of the artist cooperative, Wood River Valley Studio Tour, has exposed her to even more artists.
For Crisis Hotline Executive Director Sher Foster, who once owned a gallery in Ketchum next to the old Buffalo Cafe, and has work in numerous private collections, the hospital is a nice, less aggressive chance to share her work while she’s busy doing other things.
And that’s part of Pratt’s motivation. She knows the struggle that many artists go through to survive, much less market themselves.
“There’s just too much great work out there that never gets seen,” Pratt said. “I do this because I like to do it, and the artists are very generous, but it’s still pretty impressive the caliber of the work and how we can keep it going on very little funding.”
Be a part of the art:
For more information, contact Katie Pratt at 510-292-6300 or