Standing in the playroom at United Cerebral Palsy Children's Center in Commack, it's hard to believe the concrete block walls of this former gymnasium were once stark white. Nowadays, these walls can talk; they sing, really, with colorful images of floating balloons, massive orange pumpkins, lush trees and rolling hills, gigantic sunflowers, dancing butterflies, hearts, bunnies and bears.
It's hard not to feel cheery in these surroundings -- which was exactly the goal of 20 artists who gathered in the gymnasium for two weeks in 2011 to paint the four 25-by 60-foot walls, creating floor-to-ceiling murals themed "Bringing the Outdoors In; Four Seasons of Play."
The undertaking was organized by Huntington-based Splashes of Hope, a nonprofit organization founded in 1996 whose mission is to transform ordinary hospitals, medical and social service facilities through custom art. United Cerebral Palsy was the group's largest "splash" to date. But artist and Splashes founder Heather Buggée, 42, of Huntington, said the nonprofit will soon embark on another giant mass-mural project, this one at the Northport VA Medical Center. Once complete, the VA will join a long list of institutions that have been splashed, including Brookhaven Memorial Hospital Medical Center in East Patchogue; the Carol M. Baldwin Breast Care Center at Stony Brook University Hospital; Good Samaritan Hospital Medical Center in West Islip; and St. Charles Hospital in Port Jefferson.
The centers and hospitals hoping for a splash aren't limited to Long Island.
Last summer at American Hospital of Paris, "We put together a project to paint a mural on a hallway, connecting the emergency room to the pediatrics unit to the MRI and X-ray unit," said Splashes volunteer artist Emily Green, of Northport.
Facilities are chosen to be splashed a number of ways. Some hospitals have a budget in place or conduct their own grant writing campaign to support our projects, Buggée said, and they are first priority with scheduling.
Or, in collaboration with Splashes of Hope sponsors, the nonprofit chooses a facility from its waiting list based on the sponsor's giving guidelines and/or personal experience. Buggée added that some sponsors direct the organization to a hospital or specific facility not on the waiting list.
When there is no funding available but a need exists to brighten a depressing environment, Buggée said, her group seeks volunteer artists and donated materials to make it a reality.
Green, 20, and a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan, applied for a grant through the Barnes & Noble Foundation to paint the mural. "We painted a landscape of the skyline of Paris merging with the skyline of New York City," she said. "A lot of American patients stay there, so it makes them feel more at home."
Green is one of about 200 volunteers who have painted for Splashes since its founding. Finding artists who can take direction, express themselves and possess the special skills and versatility required to paint murals, plus who have free time and flexible schedules, is always a challenge, Buggée said. But Green began volunteering for the nonprofit when she was 15, helping out at the organization's annual gala. Her first artistic project was in 2011, painting about a dozen ceiling tiles for Huntington Hospital. The ceiling is the first thing patients see when they wake up from anesthesia.
A colorful idea is born
Years before Splashes of Hope came to fruition, Buggée painted ceiling tiles for her very first volunteer art project. That was back in 1989 and it was for Blythedale Children's Hospital in upstate Valhalla. The inspiration to bring life to stark institutional walls and ceilings came while she was accompanying her dear friend, Will Harvey, to chemotherapy treatments at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan. Harvey had a recurrence of Hodgkin's disease. Although he was 25, he was undergoing treatment in the pediatric unit, and the two of them, both artists, took note of the drab environment.
"It didn't seem conducive to healing," said Buggée, who lived in Westchester at the time. "So we talked about the ways we could change it, as artists."
After Harvey passed away in 1989, "that's when I thought I should do something, so I went to Blythedale and the nurses gave me a case of ceiling tiles," Buggée said. Once they were painted with colorful, fun designs, the 2- by 4-inch tiles would be something for bedridden children to focus on, the nurses explained.
"I spent a weekend painting them, and then some friends got interested, and then some hospitals got interested," Buggée said.
After studying art abroad, she moved to Bayport in 1996, working as a freelance portrait artist and muralist. And that's when Splashes of Hope became a reality. A board of directors was formed and the nonprofit was offered headquarters at Huntington's Coindre Hall by the property owners, the Suffolk County Parks Department. In exchange for the use of several floors, where artists typically paint panels on-site and then transport the pieces for installation, "our volunteers oversee the mansion . . . We give historic tours to the public by appointment," Buggée said.
On request, they provide face painting at county events, such as the annual Deepwells Fall Festival in St. James. The organization is funded by private donations and funding from sponsors such as Benjamin Moore Paint, which provides supplies for free. The group's annual fundraising event is held in April.
It was while attending the 2010 Annual Gala & Art Auction that Chris Wright, of Levittown, became so impressed with Splashes of Hope's mission that he joined the board of advisers.
"What struck me about Splashes at that dinner in particular was the fact that the money they raised that evening was to fund a splash for the headquarters of the Suffolk County Make-A-Wish Foundation," said Wright, 47, who at the time was chairman of that chapter.
"You don't always see a charity raising money to support another charity," Wright added. But the two nonprofits complement each other: Make-A-Wish provides joy and hope to children with life-threatening medical conditions by fulfilling a wish; Splashes of Hope also offers enrichment to children's healing, and not only aesthetically.
There's also a therapeutic value to the murals.
"It helps the kids get through procedures," said Lauren Sharaby, a certified child life specialist in the pediatric hematology/oncology department at Stony Brook Long Island Children's Hospital.
The cancer center was splashed five years ago with bright, aquatic images -- including mermaids with no hair. The murals divert the young patients' attention away from needles and other medical equipment.
"By using the murals as a distracting medium and having them look at something lowers their vital signs, makes them calm," Sharaby said.
But artist Green is quick to point out that the patients aren't the only ones who benefit from Splashes of Hope.
"It's helpful for the people in the facilities, but also for the volunteers," she said. "The volunteers all have a passion for art, and being able to use your artistic ability to help others, to make someone feel better when suffering -- it's a beautiful thing."