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Margaret Welshons is the coordinator of the Healing Arts program, which is a collaboration between Hudson Hospital & Clinics and The Phipps Center for the Arts. Welshons says it is her dream job.

Healing Arts program uses hospital for a gallery

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First-time visitors to Hudson Hospital & Clinics may be surprised by the amount and quality of original artwork on display in the corridors and waiting areas.

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It's so abundant and expertly exhibited that a person might think they had wandered into a gallery, if not for the hustle and bustle of the medical facility.

The unique environment is the creation of the Healing Arts program, a collaboration of the hospital and The Phipps Center for the Arts.

The program is older than the health campus itself, dating back to 2001 when the hospital was at its previous location on Wisconsin Street.

Hospital President & CEO Marian Furlong is a believer in the connection between the healing process and a patient's physical surroundings. She wanted to enhance the hospital's healing environment by bringing in artwork.

It was also the time when plans were being made for the new health campus on Stageline Road, south of the freeway. There were decisions to be made about how to decorate the walls of the new facility.

According to Furlong's recollection, hospital volunteer Sally Friedlander suggested that the hospital partner with The Phipps on a program that would provide the hospital with artwork and give artists a new venue.

John Potter, The Phipps' executive director, and Anastasia Shartin, the center's visual arts director, embraced the idea. Soon after, the Healing Arts program was born, and was in place when the new Hudson Hospital & Clinics opened in the summer of 2003.

Margaret Welshons has directed the program since 2004, working out of a shared office behind the information desk in the hospital's main corridor.

At any given time, Welshons has 150 to 200 pieces of art by a dozen or more artists to keep track of. The paintings, drawings, sculptures, photographs, pottery, fabrics and more are exhibited in corridors, waiting areas, offices and patient, procedure and conference rooms.

Welshons, a former nurse, plans the exhibits, communicates with the artists, installs the art and watches over the inventory.

"We treat it just as we would at a gallery or a museum," Welshons said. "I think of it as functional art. I think that it really helps the hospital make a connection with the community, as well."

Once a year, The Phipps puts out a call for artists to participate in the program. The Phipps Visual Arts Council judges the submissions and recommends artists to invite to exhibit their work.

Welshons and a jury of hospital staff make the final selections.

"There is some art that is really wonderful and excellent, but would not be appropriate here," said Welshons. "I do not want things that are creepy or eerie ... or depict any kind of pain or suffering. I want things that patients can respond to."

The patients are the most important of three groups of people that the art is selected for -- the others being hospital visitors and the staff.

"I think it is important that we relate to the people who come here, that we recognize not just our clinical needs for treating them, but their needs for healing," Welshons said.

Stress is an impediment to healing, she said, and calming artwork reduces it.

Welshons worked in psychiatric nursing and administration at Fairview Hospital in Minneapolis before returning to college to earn a degree in art.

"It is an interesting position for me here, because I really understand hospitals, and I'm not afraid of them. And I really understand artists, and I'm not afraid of them either," she said.

"It is an interesting blend to bring those entities together and create a program that serves both of them. Really, it's my dream job."

The exhibit in a particular area is rotated every three months or so for the benefit of the hospital staff. Welshons wants the work environment to remain enriching and interesting for them.

For the public, the art provides a pleasurable experience at a place that is more often associated with negative feelings. It helps make people comfortable.

While Welshons and three volunteers were putting up a new exhibit of fabric art in the main corridor one day last week, a woman passerby stopped for a closer look.

It happens all the time, Welshons said.

She recalled a cardiac patient being wheeled from the emergency room to a hospital bed who asked the nurse to stop so he could look at a painting.

Occasionally, people come to the hospital just to view the exhibits.

And some visitors and patients are so taken with a piece that they purchase it.

Welshons recalled a husband who bought a painting he discovered while anxiously walking the halls during his wife's surgery.

"It was a very abstract piece, but for him it was hopeful. And she recovered," Welshons remembered.

A couple whose child was born at the hospital bought a painting of a tree for their baby's nursery. It made them feel sheltered.

Almost all of the art pieces on display are for sale, and have the price listed on them. They can be purchased through the hospital's gift shop or by contacting Welshons at (715) 531-6059 or margaret.a.welshons@hudsonhospital.org.

Welshons said around 50 to 60 pieces are sold in a year. More than 5,500 pieces of art have been displayed during her time as coordinator of the program.

She said artists welcome the opportunity to present their work to a new audience.

"The people who go to galleries and museums are self-selected. But everyone comes to a hospital, so it really broadens the group of people who see their work," Welshons said.

The program features artists from the northwestern Wisconsin and Twin Cities region.

Welshons is a part-time employee of The Phipps Center for the Arts.

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Randy Hanson
Randy Hanson has reported for the Star-Observer since 1997. He came to Hudson after 11 years with the Inter-County Leader at Frederic, and eight years of teaching social studies. He’s a graduate of UW-Eau Claire.
(715) 426-1066
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