When speaking with John Early of Portland, Oregon-based Site Painters, one word, explicitly or otherwise, kept recurring: harmony. Whether it be the way in which a piece of art interacts with its surroundings, those who come in contact with it, or within its own framework, harmony is what makes it all work, a concept that's not lost on the various hospitals that have commissioned Early, along with co-founder and collaborative partner Laura Bender, for murals and other more expansive installments.

“Besides color and theme, one of the things we look for in our composition is their sense of flow and circulation so that there's a harmony between the different parts,” says Early. “Very often, there's a relation between one shape and another, a sense of rhythm, all of which contribute a liveliness, but also a calmness. That's the kind of balance we're trying to strike: to have vitality in the image but to have a calm harmony. That's one of my standards when designing: has it gotten too static or over active? I aim for the balance between rhythm and harmony. It's kind of a musical challenge there.”

After Early and Bender partnered more than 25 years ago as art students working on a public art installment, they've grown their careers, working on residential, commercial, and eventually healthcare clients. “Gradually in our time in San Diego, we shifted from residential work to commercial clients and work for hospitals and clinics,” says Early. “I think our major breakthrough, or the project that really shifted us into healthcare, was in Portland. We moved here in 1991 or 1992 and did a very large project for Doernbecher Children's Hospital. We did 12 custom stencil designs that were themed toward their iconic wayfinding system-it was all based on different landscape types. We did about a mile and a half of stenciling for the Doernbecher Children's Hospital, which got our feet very wet in doing healthcare work.”

And while Site Painters has enjoyed a fair amount of success in the healthcare industry, that's not to say that their work translates one-to-one from more commercial work. Early notes that in clinical settings, there's far more attention paid to imagery because of the need to integrate into a more powerful environment. “I think we're much more thoughtful about the imagery and who's going to see it,” says Early. “For instance, we've done work for restaurants. Restaurants are almost a theatrical setting, so you can really up the energy and be dramatic. People are only going to be in the environment for a short time and are going to a restaurant, in a sense, to have their senses entertained. Of course with healthcare, I think it's the most complex environment that we do work for because there's the staff who are working full time they're not ill but they're certainly under a lot of pressure-and then there's the public and family members who have their own perspective and who are coming in periodically, not really living with the art; and then of course there's the patient population.”

Early also mentions the added burden that the artist and artwork have in creating a positive distraction for all parties involved. Because of that, Site Painters’ distinctive style is not only washed in color, but occasionally, Early and Bender will add a three-dimensional aspect to their work like they did at Providence Health System's St. Vincent Hospital, Portland, Oregon. Says Early, “I think it adds an extra level of vitality and complexity to the imagery. Particularly with pediatrics, the element of positive distraction is increased by having that dimensional cutout element layered onto the painted image. There's a little bit of a discovery element for some of the younger kids.”

Early goes on to note a number of different complexities that abound with creating integrated artwork, including lighting, which he contends is a major issue in most public artwork, and specifically healthcare work: “Particularly with healthcare, sometimes the specifications for wiring were done several years before the artwork was planned, and it's hard to alter those things.”

In the end, though, the goal of Site Painters’ work in the healthcare setting is simple: to enliven and create a positive distraction for those in pain. And a piece's ability to do that ultimately comes down to how well it fits in its surrounding. “That's another thing with site-specific art: how well it's going to integrate,” says Early. “It can't just be a cool image, it has to look like it's part of the environment. You want harmony in the environment. You aim for imagery that has a really high aesthetic, stand-alone quality. But it's not the only player in the environment.” For further information on the featured artwork, visit http://sitepainters.net/pages/inspiration.asp. John Early or Laura Bender, can be reached at 503.788.2064. Healthcare Design 2010 September;10(9):50-52