Visual Arts

Sacred Hideouts at University Hospital

The Reflection Room at University Hospital, featuring glass work and painted walls by Dan Cummings

Hospitals are bustling busy places where people move quickly with purpose, where missteps can divide life and death, and where hurting people spend countless hours waiting. The team of chaplains at the University of Utah hospital, along with architects, designers, and artists, have created a space of respite from the mainstream hustle. Five years in the making, the Infinity Chapel and Reflection Room are now ready for use.

Tucked away in a corridor near the cafeteria, these two spaces are used by everyone in the hospital community — patients, families, nurses, doctors, and other employees. The Infinity Chapel is large enough for group meetings, family gatherings, and religious services. The Reflection Room is a small, intimate space for quiet contemplation or prayer. There’s a prayer rug, chairs, and a place where visitors can write their prayers and deposit them in slots. The chaplains collect them and offer intercessory prayers on their behalf.

Saundra Shanti, a chaplain and one of the planners of the project, says that the spaces were designed to be comfortable and welcoming, not intimidating. “It’s a place of refuge, where you can go to pray or ponder, in whatever faith tradition you have.”

For Shanti, who studied art as an undergraduate and received a master’s degrees in art, health, and theology, incorporating art in the design of the spaces was important. “For me,” she said, “the arts are expressions of spirit. Art heals!”

Shanti and others on the design team put a lot of thought and research into the selection of art and materials for the spaces. Aided by art consultant Judith Christensen, they interviewed and selected local artists Nancy Vorm and Dan Cummings for the key art pieces for the two spaces.

Nancy Vorm at work on her encaustic panels for University Hospital’s Infinity Chapel

For Nancy Vorm, the project started pre-pandemic. But then, pandemic protocols to keep everyone safe produced unexpected delays and a moving deadline. In December 2019,  Christensen asked Vorm if she would be interested in a commission to create four encaustic paintings for the Infinity Chapel. Vorm suggested she call Phillips Gallery, which represents her work, to help work through the business details of the commission. 

When Vorm met with Christensen, the project manager, and chaplains in January 2020, they thought the deadline for the artwork might be as early as March 2020. Then there were lots of meetings, says Vorm. “They told me they wanted the four panels to represent the four elements — earth, wind, fire, and water. They wanted it to feel spiritual but non-denominational.”

Vorm created small mock-ups on which she played with colors to represent the elements and experimented with symbols to connect with spiritual traditions. The feedback from the chaplains led to a decision to keep the panels generic, since every culture has its own symbols for the elements.

By the time Vorm started the pieces, the COVID pandemic had begun and everything stopped. The hospital was locked down tight, employees and supply chains were impacted, and the deadline was moved optimistically to September 2020.

Nevertheless, Vorm continued working in her Bogue Foundry studio. Each panel was 26” x 60” and challenging to move around her workspace. With help from other studio artists, Vorm shifted panels from work surface to shelf or floor, working on all the panels at once. 

“The nice thing about encaustic,” says Vorm, “is the way you can manipulate the surface for both texture and smoothness. I enjoy the luminosity and translucence of the medium, too.”

There seemed to be a conversation between the panels as she worked. As she made changes to one panel, its companion needed an adjustment. The panels were to hang end to end with space in between. Compositionally, they were similar, with a darker four-inch band of color on the bottom, corresponding to a lighter tint of the same color on the top. Each panel was a different color to represent earth, wind, fire, and water, yet Vorm wanted all of them to be similar in value, with the darker band at the bottom tying them together visually. 

The panel representing fire was especially challenging. She wanted it to read “fire” but, at the same time, have an appropriate feeling of serenity for the chapel setting. 

All of the panels were complete by June 2021, though, due to pandemic delays, the chapel was far from finished. The hospital project manager arranged for an installer to pick up the panels and store them until ready to install.

University Hospital’s Infinity Chapel with encaustic panels by Nancy Vorm

Dan Cummings was invited to design the featured glass art piece for the Reflection Room. Christensen, who had worked with Cummings on other projects, took the project team to Cummings’s studio for a visit and a conversation about the space and their hopes for the function of the art.

Cummings, who has installed art in a number of chapel spaces in the past, envisioned a glass piece about flowing energy. “I’ve always been interested in water,” he saYS.  “When I was a kid, we’d go up to Millcreek for picnics on Sundays. I’d lie down by the creek and watch the water. It’s always fascinated me. I did a sketch, and everyone went nuts over it.” 

The image of flowing water, both smooth and turbulent, is carved into half-inch-thick starfire glass, which has very little color. But when lit from both sides, it shows form, highlights, and shadows. Cummings applied clear acrylic spray in some areas, and in other areas, he rubbed an oil that creates sparkle and shine. 

The Reflection Room is round, like a womb, and the glass art piece is embedded in the curved wall. When it was about time for installation, Cummings suggested he paint the walls and the ceiling in gradated pastel colors to represent a sunrise. All agreed with the idea. Artist Stephen Teuscher helped Cummings with the painting. The ceiling has small lights that feel like the last starlight before the rising sun takes over the sky.

The two rooms also include other commissioned art pieces. The altar, lecturn, and kneelers were created by Chad Parkinson of the Furniture Joint. They are made of marble and walnut, which, Shanti believes, are grounding and help set this space apart as something different and sacred. “These are sacred hideouts!” she says.

A cross was designed and created by Brett Wright of Metal Arts Foundry. 

The two rooms were completed and dedicated in June 2022.

Categories: Visual Arts

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