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  • Writer's pictureBen Fearnside

Public Space Commissions

I often work to commission, for people who love my work but don't see the perfect painting to fit their home. But working on a commission for a public space is another world, as I discovered.

The Sponsor

Two years ago I was approached by a potential client with a proposal. He had atrial fibrillation and had been treated at Worthing Hospital after a blue-light emergency. Now living well, he wanted to give something back. The hospital has quite a collection of artworks, (including a popular colony of metal penguins), so he was inspired to sponsor a painting. He knew that I worked large-scale, and came to me with a budget and some ideas.

The Hospital

We then approached the Hospital, who were enthusiastic but had their own criteria. So this is the list of the Sponsor's requirements and the Hospital's for the painting:

  • Colourful with a ‘wow’ factor

  • Not scary, not a too dark

  • An ‘Understandable’ abstract

  • Not ‘about illness’ but health and wellbeing

  • Using metals, preferably shiny ones

  • Designed for its chosen hanging position

  • A good 'waymarker' (arty signpost)

  • Safe for allergies and cleaning products

  • Not too heavily textured, as dust is a health hazard

An interesting list to work with!

The Location

The next step was to pick a site around the cardiac department. Big wall spaces are scarce, as there’s always that compulsory notice, fire-alarm, emergency light fitting or badly trunked wiring to negotiate. It came down to two positions:

  • Option 1) a dark waiting area. Lots of people would sit and look at the painting, but the reflective metals wouldn’t shine.

  • Option 2) a bright corridor. Good light, but not much of a captive audience. Also the painting would need to be designed to work ‘on the oblique, on the approach’

The Artwork

We went for the second option, I measured up and started sketching. I explored the idea of a heart rhythm ECG: how it appears when a heart is healthy and how it changes in fibrillation. This left-to right panning over time seemed to work for the long space too.

Early sketches were literal, with triangular shapes for the peaks and troughs. But this felt too obvious/ bordering on ‘scary’. In the end I implied the heart beat with small red squares on a gold and blue ground of shifting shapes. I called it ‘Rhythmia’.

The Outcome

The painting was well received by its sponsor and the hospital. It fitted its location perfectly. But what do the cardiac patients and staff think of it? Is it successful art?

The answer is that although it ticks all the boxes, I’m not sure. Working with new people, new environments is very stimulating, but fulfilling a commission brief inevitably involves... the skillful art of compromise.

And the moral of this story: corridors are a challenge but fire alarms can be a source of inspiration!


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