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New Hillman Cancer Center exhibits 'natural mix' of art, healing

| Sunday, March 23, 2003

The words "cancer center" do not usually put happy thoughts into the minds of most. So it might come as a surprise, when pulling up to the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute's new Hillman Cancer Center on Centre Avenue in Shadyside, that located in the middle of the center's circular drive is a most jubilant sculpture.

Titled "Circle of Care," it is an arrangement of slightly larger-than-life bronze figures of exuberantly expressive men and women holding a ribbon that encircles an old man lifting a young girl on his shoulder.

The encircling figures, says the sculpture's creator, Tuck Langland, represent all those who provide care for the sick, from the doctors and nurses at the center to its cafeteria workers and custodial staff.

The central figures, the old man and the young girl, represent cancer researchers. Like the four lancet windows in Chartres Cathedral in northwestern France that depict the New Testament evangelists on the shoulders of the Old Testament prophets, the old man represents cancer researchers of the present and past and the girl represents those of the future.

"The idea is this: that maybe in 20 years somebody will have a real breakthrough in cancer treatment, and maybe that somebody is a little 10-year-old girl right now," says Langland, a professor of art at Indiana University in South Bend, Ind.

It is an appropriate theme for the entrance to this $130 million building designed by the Pittsburgh-based architecture firm IKM.

Named for its primary patrons, Henry and Elsie Hillman, the Hillman Cancer Center is unique for housing both a cutting-edge cancer research center and a state-of-the-art patient care facility, the latter of which was designed by another local firm, Radelet McCarthy.

But the center also is unique for its incorporation of art into a healing environment.

"Art and healing are a natural mix," says sculptor Jeffrey Maron, whose piece "Spirits' Flight" fills the Hillman Cancer Center's bright atrium.

A sculptor from New York City who has completed several commissions for health-care facilities on the east coast, Maron says, "I believe that people have a great capacity to heal themselves, but that in order to do that they must be able to access certain types of reserves that they may not have in a time of crisis. Art can bring them close to those aspects of their consciousness and help them to focus on healing."

In the airy, glass-block-lined atrium that links the research and patient-care pavilions, three of Maron's abstract aluminum birds, each eight feet long, soar above a long contained garden of white orchids and peace lilies that sprawl under ficus trees on the ground floor below.

Off to one corner, in what Maron describes as a "meditation area," four similar birds hover over a black granite fountain from which the soothing sound of running water can be heard.

Places such as this, Maron says, have been largely lacking in health-care facilities until only recently.

"I've spent a great deal of time with people in hospitals and was always surprised by the lack of facilities other than those used for treatment," he says. "I wanted to create something uplifting and ethereal for patients, their families and the medical staff."

Physiologists believe that creative expression's ability to heal is accomplished by affecting brain-wave patterns and chemicals released by the brain. These physiological events can bring about changes in one's attitude or emotional state, and in some cases, even alter one's perception of pain.

"All art is therapeutic," says Suzanne Steiner, a retired art professor from Carlow College who started the Art Therapy Preparation Program there. "You can't help it. When you go into your right brain, your unconscious comes to the fore, though you are not aware of it."

Steiner currently volunteers at the Burger King Cancer Caring Center in Bloomfield, where she teaches expressive art therapy classes. A cancer survivor herself, she says art can contribute to the healing process because it can reduce or remove stress, thereby allowing the body to focus its energy on healing.

"Art can put us all on a common plane, those of us who have or have had cancer," Steiner says. "We live so much in our brains, in our words, in our articulations, that we forget that there is this other language that we can use. This language of color and form and texture, those kinds of things."

Looking up at his abstract birds, the highest of which is at 48 feet, Maron says, "On a very simple level, if someone could enter the Hillman Cancer Center feeling distraught and uncertain, and then, just for a brief moment, see something that distracts them, that captivates them just for a second, then that in itself is easing their burden. It's helping them."

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