The Healing Power of Art

Over the past seven years, Elise Braun of Waterbury, Vt., quietly fulfilled a promise to her daughter.

Without much fanfare or recognition, Braun transformed her daughter’s dying wish to have artwork placed in every patient room in every hospital in Vermont into a reality that will benefit untold numbers of patients and family members for years to come.

It all began in 2008 when Braun’s daughter Susan Sebastian, who was suffering from a chronic and fatal illness, came home to Vermont to be near her mother during the last days of her life. While in the hospital, Sebastian despaired over the blank and sterile walls of her patient room.

An avid art collector and someone known to dress with fanfare, Sebastian craved visual distraction from the realities of her illness. Family friend an oncology nurse at UVM Medical Center Deb Clark recalls visiting Sebastian in the hospital.

“I so remember her sitting in a chair and gesturing at the wall in frustration,” says Clark. “She said ‘Deb, there needs to be art there!’ I agreed with her wholeheartedly. It’s a problem throughout all hospitals. But I had no idea what was about transpire.”

Before she passed in April of 2009 Sebastian found a way to transform her frustration into inspiration. She told her mother that when she passed, she wanted the funds from her estate to be used to ensure that no patient in Vermont ever had to endure their illness while staring at a blank wall again.  Braun was more than willing to grant that wish but was at a loss as to how to determine what type of art was the right art for the setting.

The answer came in the form of a book called Healing Spaces: The Sciences of Place and Well-Being by Dr. Esther Sternberg.

A rheumatologist, director of the University of Arizona Institute on Place and Wellbeing, and a medical researcher, Sternberg has documented a powerful link between art and healing. “Art,” she says, “is what we call a ‘positive distracter.’ It has the ability to transport you to a place of peace and way from your pain.”  Sternberg and other researchers also found that, universally, when people are asked to conjure up images of paradise, there is an overwhelmingly strong preference for sweeping vistas of nature. Further, they found that patients who viewed those types of images in a healthcare setting actually experience reduced levels of stress, anxiety, and depression; requested less medication; and, in one study, required shorter hospital stays.   

It was precisely those types of results that Braun wanted to achieve with the art she intended to purchase through the newly established Susan Sebastian Foundation.

Unbeknownst to Dr. Sternberg, Braun used the doctor’s research to create guidelines for soliciting and selecting art to be purchased by the Foundation and, in turn, donated to hospitals to hang in every patient hospital room in the state —1200 in all. With the assistance of Gilbert Myers, a retired Burlington attorney who helped set up the Foundation and now manages it, Braun began reaching out to hundreds of Vermont artists. Works including photographs, watercolors, acrylics, pastels, and prints from artists depicting the varied scenery found across the state were given equal and careful consideration.

The first hospital to benefit from the Foundation’s generosity was the University of Vermont Medical Center (then known as Fletcher Allen) which received 47 works in 2009. While Braun was no doubt pleased to see her daughter’s vision begin to take shape, she knew that with 14 hospitals in the state, she was only a fraction of the way to seeing the wish fully realized.

Over the next seven years, Braun continued to solicit art, make selections and transform once barren and sterile hospital rooms into truly healing spaces. From St. Albans, Middlebury, and Randolph to Brattleboro, Newport, and Berlin and many places in between, Braun traversed the state donating art in her daughter’s memory until there was just one hospital left: Southern Vermont Medical Center in Bennington.

When Myers contacted Leslie Keefe, Vice President of Corporate Development at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center to share the Foundation’s intention to donate 54 pieces of art and, in doing so, complete the execution of Susan Sebastian’s vision, Keefe was both stunned and honored.

“Until we received the phone call, we weren’t even aware of the Foundation and its efforts,” says Keefe. “For our hospital to be the last institution to receive the gift of art from the Foundation and allow them to see their mission as complete, well it’s just special beyond words.”    

In effort to make the Foundation’s final gift especially meaningful, the hospital teamed up with the Southern Vermont Arts Center in Manchester, Vt., to host an exhibition featuring the final art selections and a special presentation by Dr. Esther Sternberg.

Like Keefe, Sternberg was taken aback when she learned of the work the Foundation had been doing. “I am so in awe and full of admiration for what Elise has done,” says Sternberg. “To take my words from paper and put them into practice to help bring peace and healing to so many is simply amazing. The impact she’s had and will continue to have on health and well-being is a remarkable legacy. Truly remarkable.”

Sternberg was both happy and honored to make the trip from her home in Arizona to the verdant hills of Manchester in June of this year for the special exhibition, presentation, and reception event dubbed “The Healing Power of Art.” While Braun was unable to be there due to health reasons, her spirit and her daughter’s vision were very much present in the 54 pieces chosen as the final gifts of the Foundation.

“The work does a wonderful job of capturing the beauty and peacefulness of the Vermont landscape,” says Sternberg. “It will contribute tremendously to the creation of healing spaces at Southern Vermont Medical Center.”

Southwestern Vermont Health Care President and CEO Tom Dee agrees. “For the past several years we’ve been attempting to transform the ways in which care is delivered throughout our hospital system,” says Dee. “That this gift should come to us at this time and aid us in enhancing our environment in such a powerful and beautiful way, well, it was most unexpected and wonderful surprise.”

While Braun never saw the last works selected for display, she was very aware that not only was the mission of the Susan Sebastian Foundation complete but her promise to her daughter had been kept. One week after the final pieces were chosen, Braun passed away surrounded by friends, family and, yes, art.  

Special Thanks