The Watts Mural Project: Art Students and Alumni Bring Beauty and Hope to Health Center
On a Saturday morning earlier this month, students and alumni from California State University, Dominguez Hills arrived at the Watts Health Center (WHC) to deliver two hand-painted murals. For nearly a year, the group volunteered their time and talents to create “A Day at the Beach” and “Bridge of Life,” which were respectively installed in the pediatrics and obstetrics and gynecological areas of the community clinic.
The project had a dual purpose. The need to beautify depressing institutional spaces was the group’s first objective.
“When we went to the clinic [to plan the murals], we realized it was the right thing to do,” said Eunice Gearhart last summer as she began work on “Bridge of Life” in the LaCorte Hall painting studio on the CSUDH campus. “Right now, their center is pretty bland, there’s nothing to give them any happiness or hope. They have some beautiful art in other parts of the center, but in the areas that we’re doing this for, they don’t have anything but posters and information.”
The murals depict the local community with characters and scenery that are designed to inspire patients and their families. “A Day at the Beach” is a sweeping vista of not only the Watts community but the nearby beaches of Los Angeles, beaches that many local residents have never visited.,
“People who are reluctant to come to the medical center for any reason whatsoever are all the more reluctant when it’s a miserable place where they get poked, prodded and hurt,” said Gilah Yelin Hirsch, the professor of art who spearheaded the project in collaboration with Patricia Brown, WHC’s facility patient services representative. “If they can be made to feel that they can go [to the health center] to experience... something that gives them a sense of an alternative way of life, that in itself is a healing experience.”
The team of artists included Diana Adams, Nicole Adams, Chris Avery, Maria Bjorkhdahl, Edith Asker Chipman, Sonya Edmonds, Gearhart, Abdallah Ibrahim, Mai Iwase, Andre Jackson, Phyllis Quinn, Cordella and Larry Raymond, Dennis Sylvester, Louise Wain and Andrew Wokabi. Assisting them in the installation were Chipman’s husband Wayne and Edmonds’ husband Kent; Bryant Crook and Jorge Madrigal of the WHC Foundation Facilities Management Department; and Robin Wilkes, instructional aid technician at CSUDH. Mario Congreve, staff producer for CSUDH’s Distance Learning department, volunteered throughout the project to produce a video documentary, assisted by digital media arts student Calvin Ko.
Another by-product of the mural project was the opportunity for artists who typically work alone to learn how to work in a group, meshing their individual talents and vision toward one common goal. Quinn, who graduated in art history last summer, is working toward her teaching credential to instruct high school students in art. She recalls how it felt to relinquish total control over her work to achieve the team’s final goal.
“It was hard at first, because I would paint something and then I’d come back and somebody had added their own artistic ideas,” she recalled as she watched WHC staff members hang the works. “I’d have to sit there and think and say, ‘That’s OK.’ It would turn out to be better than what I originally had in my mind. So after a while, I would come in and say, ‘I wonder what’s new.’”
Another unique challenge that the group faced in executing the murals was a cultural awareness of the community that the WHC serves. When the works were in their planning stages, Hirsch met with doctors who specialized with issues in minority hospitals and worked with her students to ensure that these issues were artistically addressed in the final product.
“One of the key things I learned is that minority women are least likely to nurse their babies, so we wanted to encourage that,” she said. “We wanted to encourage fathers to be involved in families. We wanted to encourage educational phenomena – like in the OB/GYN, where we show the nine months of fetal development. And for pediatrics mural, we wanted to make sure we had something very intricate, involving lots of detail, lots of activities to keep the children occupied when they’re here.”
Ibrahim, a studio art alum, said that he hoped the murals would give “exposure to art for a community that has been struggling” with issues of poverty and violence.
“Art is known to increase the capacity of the brain,” he said. “New generations of youth will be looking at this work and it will affect kids that will be diverted from thinking about crime to thinking about art.”
Many of the students themselves have experienced the connection between art and healing. Raymond, a community member who with her husband Larry takes art classes at Dominguez Hills for personal enrichment, said that hospitals have come a long way since she was a child in providing a more comforting environment after accompanying her grandson to Children’s Hospital in Berkeley for an outpatient procedure.
“I thought it was a very welcoming thing,” she recalled. “It was nice to have a diversion for him so we could talk about what was on the walls. It was a whole lot better than when I was at Children’s Hospital to have my tonsils taken out. There was nothing on the walls, they were...you know, the old hospital green.”
Ibrahim shared the story of visiting his brother in England, who suffered a stroke recently. Having read that the first week following a stroke is critical to recovery, the Egyptian native decided to keep his brother as busy with diversions as possible.
“I took him for a walk and I showed him some of my paintings,” he remembered. “I got him to think about different things other than the problem he had. In two days, he was walking around. The hospital said it was a miracle; they thought he would stay for a long time. They asked me what I did and I said I just showed him some art and talked to him. In one week, he was out and he recovered really well. So I believe it works. You can recover from anything if you have a positive outlook on life. Art is part of that.”
The mural project had many supporters. On campus, art department chair Michele Allan, Jim Keville, assistant professor of art, and Carol Tubbs, associate dean of the College of Arts and Humanities helped in one way or another. Additionally, all materials were donated by outside vendors, including The Home Depot in Compton; Pearl Artist and Craft Company in Ft. Lauderdale; Golden Artist Colors in New Berlin, NY; Vargas Specialties and Jones Lumber Company in Lynwood; Lowe’s Home Improvement in Hawthorne; and Watt Health Center’s Patricia Brown and Dana Knoll. Transportation of the murals, as well as ongoing donation deliveries to CSU Dominguez Hills, were donated by Danny Lewis of the WHC Materials Management Staff.
Quinn looked back on the experience , saying it brought her and her fellow students and alumni together as “more like family rather than a class.”
“We devoted our personal time to do this. We had jobs and things to do but we devoted our summer...to finish the project. We thought we would finish it during the summer but it continued on. Even though we all had classes, we came back to make sure it was finished. You put more into your art when you’re doing it for someone you care about.”
Hirsch echoed her sentiments, saying that working collaboratively was a growth experience for the artists.
“Doing a mural of this scale is an altogether different experience than doing small paintings, which is what most students do in school,” she noted. “Besides working in the large scale, working collaboratively is another experience because artists are generally... narcissistic. We have our own ideas and we want to execute them.
“But to be able to come up with a cohesive image that’s comprised of many different ideas and images and to coalesce them and to have everyone’s unique skill be adapted and combined with everyone else’s unique skill, that in itself is such a learning experience and it really is a definition of what a community is. Everyone’s best skill is utilized toward a greater good.”
A reception will be held on Friday, Feb. 6 in the Board Room of the WHC to honor the participants in the Watts Mural Project. For a look at the YouTube footage of the project by Mario Congreve, click here.
- Joanie Harmon
Photo above: Art students and alumni volunteered their time to create murals for the Watts Health Center. L-R: Maria Bjorkdahl, Phyllis Quinn, Gilah Yelin Hirsch, Cordella Raymond, Andre Jackson and Sonya and Kent Edmonds.
Eunice Gearhart, Maria Bjorkdahl and Abdallah Ibrahim begin the preliminary work on a mural for the obstetrics and gynecological area at the Watts Health Center. Photo by Joanie Harmon
Robin Wilkes, instructional aid technician, CSUDH Art Department, helps lay the groundwork for the installation of "Bridge of Life."
Jorge Madrigal of the Watts Health Center, hangs a panel from "A Day at the Beach" as the artists see their vision realized. L-R: Phyllis Quinn, Andre Jackson, Gilah Yelin Hirsch and Maria Bjorkdahl
Photos by Mario Congreve and Calvin Ko