The rooms of the RxART supported project, which have a calming, David Hockney-like effect, will make life easier for the pediatric patients at Harlem Hospital in New York.
By David C. Kaufman
Even in the midst of a global pandemic, the desire to create art and beauty will always push through. Especially in Harlem—where a strong tradition of determination and resilience has helped the historic African American community survive and thrive amid even the toughest cultural and political conditions.
It’s within this spirit that artist Derrick Adams has debuted his latest—and, as he says, “most successful”—artwork yet, a series of exceedingly enlivened and colorfully redesigned rooms for pediatric patients at Harlem Hospital.
Adams came to this project—which took nearly a year from conception to execution—through RxArt, the influential nonprofit that brings blue chip art into hospitals across North America. Since its founding in 2000, RxArt has worked with 60 artists in some 40 U.S. hospitals—from a José Parlá mural at the Incarnation Children’s Center in Washington Heights in New York City to site-specific wall painting by Mary Temple in the Consulting Room at the Hassenfeld Center, also in New York.
In Adams’s case, the artist worked with RxArt and NYC Health + Hospitals/Harlem to give new life to six patient treatment rooms in Harlem Hospital’s pediatric emergency department. Inspired by the sheer freedom and joy of childhood, the murals depict a range of children enjoying swimming pools—or are they ponds?—and playing with fun flotation devices such as unicorns, giraffes, and oversized rubber ducks.
The idea of transforming such clinical—and often intimidating—spaces felt very personal for Adams. “I grew up with chronic asthma and spent a lot of time in hospital emergency rooms,” says the Baltimore-born Adams. “So when I was invited to work on the project, I reflected on my own experiences in the sterile rooms with no personality.”
Adams says he wanted the rooms’ designs to feel like an escape for the young patients. He also wanted the design to feel relevant for patients of every age—from fussy toddlers to energetic teens. While the “floaters” are certainly eye-catching, Adams paid particular attention to the murals’ aquatic backdrop—grand slabs of deep cerulean that frame the kids and animals upon them with almost Hockney-like effect.
“There is no foreground or background, there’s just water,” says Adams, whose multidisciplinary works encompasses elements ranging from video and performance art to paintings and collage. “The floaties are neutralizing objects that represent leisure,” he continues. “For people of color, leisure is something that can always feel political.”
For RxArt founder and president Diane Brown, the Adams project felt particularly relevant during the COVID-19 era, especially as communities such as Harlem have taken such a disproportionate hit. Indeed, because of the crush of COVID-19 patients, Brown says Adams’s installation took somewhat longer than usual to install—but was very much worth the delay.
“We’ve wanted to work with Harlem Hospital since the day we were founded…and Derrick was really a perfect fit,” says Brown, who is now working on her next RxArt collaboration, a series of wall coverings and scanner covers by Japanese artist Takashi Murakami at the Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C. “He really understood the power these works have to change a child’s hospital experience.”