A Healthy Appreciation for Art

Andrea Spencer is devoted to art within NI's hospitals, finds Lee Henry

Andrea Spencer is one of three artists visiting Washington to work with staff and patients at the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Centre (LCCC) as part of the Rediscover NI programme.

A specialist glassware artist, Andrea is joined by fellow Arts Care representatives, writer Kate Newman and internationally acclaimed composer Elaine Agnew, as they take part in workshops and a special Symposium on ’The Arts and Health’ with Nancy Morgan, Director of the Arts and Humanities Unit at the LCCC.

Arts Care is a charity, set up in 1991 to promote and co-ordinate the development of the arts in healthcare settings throughout NI, using art as a tool to enhance the mental and physical well-being of patients and healthcare staff.

A wholehearted activist for the promotion of the arts in health care environments, 2007 is Spencer’s sixth year working with Arts Care, where she is Artist-In-Residence in Belfast City Hospital.

Spencer developed an artistic interest in glass in her native Hertfordshire.

Inspired by the work of painter John Piper, who made stained glass panels with Patrick Reyntiens, Spencer graduated from Edinburgh College of Art in 1993 with a BA (Hons) Degree in Architectural Glass.

’They had a very broad curriculum in Edinburgh,’ says the flamed-haired 36-year-old from her workshop in the City Hospital.

’I dabbled in everything there, from stained glass to glass blowing, casting and fusing. I developed a keen interest in using medieval techniques as a means to create architectural screens or windows, as opposed to vessels or forms.

‘I’ve used some of these techniques in my commission work with health centres in NI, such as the Time To Touch The Green installation in Belfast City Hospital.’

Spencer is one of 20 artists employed by Arts Care to facilitate participatory workshops and performances in hospitals and to help patients, visitors, residents and health care employees to express themselves and relieve their conditions through the creation of art.

Lorna Hastings, Director of Arts Care, believes that artists like Spencer, Newman and Agnew can play a vital part in the rehabilitation of patients and also in maintaining morale amongst healthcare staff.

Perhaps not the most inviting of environments, doctors and patients have an appreciation for the creation and exhibition of the arts in the hospitals and health centres of Britain, Ireland and the United States.

’This is a relatively new phenomenon,’ Hastings admits. ’Recent research has suggested that participation in the arts can be tremendous for helping with stress and can act as a positive means by which inpatients can take their minds of their illnesses, increase their levels of self-confidence and improve their social skills.

‘We try to enhance the environment in which patients, visitors and staff spend their time, and our Artists-In-Residence do a fantastic job.’

Belfast City Hospital finds itself on the cutting edge this new popular push to cement the arts within the context of treatment, providing exhibition space for patients and staff to show their work in its very own Tower Gallery.

Spencer spends three days each week working in studios on the site.

Scattered around her studio are examples of the work that staff and patients have produced.

The afternoon sunshine streams through a collection of colourful glass tiles arranged along the window pane; accomplished watercolour seascapes adorn the walls; abstract sculptures in glass and bronze also catch the eye, one particularly impressive for its obvious subject matter relating to breast cancer.

Spencer believes that art can provide an outlet for patients suffering with cancer and other illnesses, helping them to confront and come to terms with their conditions.

Receiving positive feedback from both staff and patients has convinced her that charities like Arts Care have a valuable role to play in the future.

’Art in this context can be used in a number of ways, as part of a therapeutic process to provide a distraction, to give people the opportunity to focus on something other than the reason they’re in hospital and also to make healthcare environments more attractive for the people who work there. 

‘It's still relatively groundbreaking to have artists residing in hospitals. The work that Arts Care has been doing over the last sixteen years is becoming more widely recognised now. Hopefully that will continue long into the future.’