Midtown Raleigh News

Ceiling art project gives Triangle cancer patients a reason to look up

Mardie Gibbs, coodinator of patient support services at the Cancer Centers, installs tiles. Artists from as far away as Florida have contributed to the project.
Mardie Gibbs, coodinator of patient support services at the Cancer Centers, installs tiles. Artists from as far away as Florida have contributed to the project. clowenstein@newsobserver.com

At the time when cancer patients may be feeling their most down, a Raleigh woman and a legion of volunteer artists are giving them reason to look up.

Straight up, in fact – at the ceiling.

Tapping into the growing “arts in medicine” movement, Healing Ceilings is replacing the cold white canopy of acoustic tile at Cancer Centers of North Carolina with seascapes, landscapes, and floral and animal designs, one 2-foot square at a time.

Amy Jo Edwards launched the project this summer after her husband, Bill McConley, an artist, went through a second round of chemotherapy treatments at the center; he complained of the boredom of staring at the white expanse above.

Cancer patients and their families spend many hours in treatment centers. Much of that time the patient is reclining, waiting for an exam or for the slow drip of intravenous drugs.

“I knew there was a need, and I knew there is an incredible artist community here that my husband and I are a part of, and I just didn’t want to have to sit – or for anybody else to have to sit – under that bare ceiling anymore,” Edwards said.

She approached Mardie Gibbs, coordinator of patient support services for the Cancer Centers, who works at the Macon Pond Road location in Raleigh where Edwards’ husband was a patient. Her question: Could they replace some of the tiles in the dropped ceiling with ones that artists created?

“I thought it was a great idea,” said Gibbs, who works with all of the Cancer Centers’ half-dozen locations, from Raleigh to Dunn. “Some of our patients are here pretty much all day, and I thought, ‘What a great way to take your mind off things.’

“Plus, the idea that somebody who didn’t even know our patients had enough love and kindness in their hearts to want to give and do something like this is just amazing.”

Edwards then reached out to local artists. They embraced the idea and shared it with others. Within weeks Edwards was getting offers to help from artists in Clayton, Sanford, Boone, Nashville, Tenn., and Florida.

Some of them had been through cancer treatment themselves.

Clayton artist Gail O’Neil was diagnosed a year ago with ovarian cancer and was treated at the same facility where Edwards and her husband had spent so much time. O’Neil would often bring small pieces of art for the Cancer Centers staff when she came for her visits. When she heard about Healing Ceilings, she saw it as a way to share her talents with more people.

She also invited her 10-year-old granddaughter, Reghan Mayo, to help. O’Neil created a four-tile scene of sea turtles swimming in soothing cerulean water.

“I thought they were so peaceful,” she said. “Also, turtles live a very long life.”

Her granddaughter painted orange and purple cats playing with a ball of yarn.

Other artists have conjured pastoral scenes with red barns or bales of hay, or ocean retreats where a palm tree stretches toward the sky.

Since June, Gibbs has installed dozens of painted tiles in the Raleigh office and some in the Clayton location. She got a fresh delivery of tiles Wednesday and said she would begin distributing them to other Cancer Centers locations.

Eventually, Edwards said, she would like to see the project expand to other adult cancer treatment centers, including those in hospitals in the Triangle and beyond.

Art’s history of healing

Arts have been used in health care settings for decades, and research in the past 15 years or so has supported what health care professionals and patients suspected: Patients’ participation in the arts can reduce the need for pain medication, improve compliance with treatment protocols, and lower blood pressure and heart rates by reducing stress.

“It gives people a place where they can escape into,” Edwards said. “That art, that image – it changes the whole clinical setting of being stuck with needles and being probed and prodded. For a few moments, you can escape into that art.”

Until Healing Ceilings has status as a nonprofit, Edwards is not accepting cash donations. But gift cards for Lowe’s Home Improvement stores allow her to pay in advance for 16-count boxes of ceiling tiles so that artists can pick them up near their homes. Each box costs about $40.

Artists often share the tiles with others. Some take one tile; others take multiples.

Monica L. Gavin of Sanford took a half-dozen and created a cosmic combination of orbs, sunbursts and squiggles against a mottled sky. Gavin said she had to apply a lot of texture to the porous tiles to get a good painting surface, using gels and pallet knives.

Gavin worked on the tiles over a period of weeks. Sometimes as she painted she thought about people in her life who have fought cancer.

She used acrylic paint in shades of blue and lavender, with streaks of sunny gold. She hopes it makes others smile.

“I just feel really good being a part of this,” Gavin said.