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Engaging art

May 1, 2007
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Therapeutic environments need artwork that excites and inspires patients

I was in Dr. Edward Greenblatt's new office selecting artwork with him when he told me the following story: “David, my 12-year-old son, met me at my old office after school. He looked around and scrutinized the room as I was putting on my coat. ‘Dad, how can you treat kids in that depressing room’, he blurted out in the car on the way home. His remark was so unexpected that I could not help but look at my office with fresh eyes the next morning, and realized how right David really was.”

Dr. Greenblatt, a psychotherapist in New York City specializing in treating children with attention and social problems, added, “We too often work in environments for extended periods of time, sometimes years, without realizing how unwelcoming they have become and how they may affect patients' attitudes and possibly even outcomes.”

Dr. Greenblatt shares his office with Dr. Joan Roth, who treats patients with anxiety disorders. Both doctors have become keenly aware of the importance of providing a bright, contemporary, and upbeat treatment environment, and so asked me to install some of my pieces in their offices.

My work is largely nonrepresentational. By confining myself to the most essential visual elements—color, form, and line—my means of communication is able to reach almost anyone. I would like my viewers to invent their own stories when looking at my images. It is the kind of art that challenges viewers' imaginations.

The installations at Drs. Green-blatt and Roth's office were extremely successful. Patients were generally delighted, and the results have been gratifying in more ways than expected. Because the pieces are bold and colorful, patients have become aware of the art and reacted in various ways. The art has facilitated meaningful dialogue in a number of cases, evoking life experiences and reactions. Patients who have become involved with the art have opened up new avenues of discussion and therapeutic approaches.

Here's how Dr. Greenblatt described two particular patients' experiences:

One was a young adolescent actress, and upon studying the many pieces on the wall of the treatment room told me she really appreciated the fact that I was supporting the arts. She was particularly fascinated by Circles [figure 1]. She said it evokes looking and eyes. Her remark prompted a discussion about self-image, a subject she had previously avoided talking about.

Figure 1.

Circles. All images courtesy of Rudi Wolff. Another patient, a 12-year-old male patient with ADHD, seemed somewhat distracted the afternoon I saw him. I assumed he forgot to take his medication. Upon inquiry he assured me that he had, but that it was the art that particularly excited him. He had in the past been more reserved in our sessions. Taking advantage of the situation, I asked him if he liked what he saw. “Oh yes,” he said, and added that he wanted to know how the artist “did it.” It turned out that this young man liked art, was quite talented, but was uncomfortable with his talent. Seeing the images on my wall opened up a new line of dialogue about his interest in art and how his talent might help his poor self-image. He told me he liked to draw cartoon figures as well as geometric designs and that he thought the pictures in the office “were really cool.” The images helped to focus our discussions, and my patient has, I believe, become more receptive and open through this dialogue.

Dr. Roth initially was concerned that her patients might be overstimulated by the art, but it soon became evident that they enjoyed her office's bright environment. As one patient who had been treated in hospital clinics most of his life said, “The only pictures there are announcements and notices taped on the wall…most yellowed with age, useless, and lifeless.”

One of Dr. Roth's patients is a 30-year-old man debilitated by an anxiety disorder and not able to work. He was intrigued by the print entitled Jazz (figure 2). “Even though he could not read the title from where he was sitting, he said this particular image reminded him of music,” Dr. Roth recalled. “I found that he was consumed with music, listening to it (especially Latin jazz) and thinking about it a good part of his day. Talking about music relaxed him and cheered him up, making it easier to communicate with him.”

Figure 2.


Another behavioral health provider who has used my artwork is Dr. Sarah Klagsbrun, a psychiatrist who treats children, adolescents, and adults. Her office is sunny and bright on the 24th floor of a high-rise building on the Eastside of Manhattan. Since Dr. Klagsbrun treats both children and adults, she finds my abstract work highly useful because it is subject neutral. What adults consider a sophisticated art form is fun, bold, and colorful for her young patients.