When artist Michele Tremblay was diagnosed with leukemia in February 2017, her first stay at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia where she underwent treatment lasted 28 days. One of her friends, Christina Morin Graham, visited almost daily.
During those visits, Morin Graham noticed how dreary the view was from Tremblay’s third-floor room on the oncology unit. It faced the southwest corner of 11th and Chestnut streets that is anchored by Milkboy, the two-story restaurant and entertainment spot that sits next to a taller building, whose drab third-story wall rises adjacent to Milkboy’s second-floor roof.
At street level, the corner might be colorful and lively. But in 2017, what patients and staff saw from Jefferson’s west-facing third floor was the dirty, streaked, graffitied wall.
To any visitor, Morin Graham noted, the view would certainly be "demotivating." So what must it be like for patients to see it, day in and day out?
"All you could stare at was a stucco wall, with smears running down it — the opposite of something that should make somebody feel good," Morin Graham said. "If you’re trying to heal from a major health concern, you want to surround yourself with things that are positive and inspiring."
Since Tremblay is an accomplished paper sculptor and painter, Morin Graham had a suggestion for her: When the hospital stay was over, why not use her talents to spruce up the wall — a project that might also give her hope?
But Tremblay was feeling pretty worn out from her treatment.
"When I got out of the hospital after 28 days, I thought I was going to die," said Tremblay, 65, a Philadelphia resident and married mother of three grown children.
As she started regaining her strength, though, Tremblay kept thinking about how depressing her hospital view had been and made a decision: She would attempt to create a mural for the wall so that patients and caregivers on Jefferson’s third floor would have something beautiful to look at.
"Even if you get five seconds of joy, that’s five seconds you aren’t thinking about whatever version of cancer you have," said Tremblay.
'This big project'
But where to start? The wall’s size alone — 20 feet high and 83 feet wide — was daunting; Tremblay had never created a work of art on that scale. And who owned the wall, anyway?
"I was originally going to [take on the project] by myself," Tremblay said, but quickly realized she couldn’t do it alone. So she contacted her friend Polly Apfelbaum, a fellow alum of Temple University’s Tyler School of Art and an accomplished artist whose work has graced galleries and collections worldwide.
"I have this big project, and I need help," Tremblay told Apfelbaum.
Apfelbaum jumped in, and the women began a three-year collaboration to develop and create a glorious concept for the wall mural.
They decided early on that it would have a floral theme, for a fitting reason.
"In the cancer ward, you’re not allowed to have flowers," Apfelbaum said. So the mural would give flowers a "place" outside the ward’s windows. Besides, flowers have always figured prominently in the works of both artists.
Tremblay, who is in remission, recalls how she and Apfelbaum would send watercolor sketches to each other as they were fine-tuning the project. Tremblay handled the foreground images of flowers, while Apfelbaum drew the background images based on the trunks and stems of dogwood trees.
"It was really a labor of love for us," said Apfelbaum, who lives in Elizaville, in upstate New York. "Michele’s spirit and generosity was such a beautiful thing."
Their resulting design is a lively, happy and playful work they christened "Floating Dogwood," which bursts with color and depth.
Meanwhile, Morin Graham asked Mural Arts Philadelphia, the community-based art program whose murals brighten thousands of public facades in the city, to seek appropriate permissions to decorate the wall. Mural Arts negotiated with the wall’s owner, Posel Enterprises, and secured authorization from Jefferson Hospital (which owns rights to the rooftop that sits below the wall), to access the site.
The wall was complicated to beautify: The roof of Milkboy, which sits adjacent to it, was unable to hold scaffolding and the number of people normally required to paint this type of mural installation, said Nadia Malik of Mural Arts. For help, Mural Arts called in Roe Fabricators, which specializes in design, fabrication and installation of grand-format graphics and outdoor-advertising structures. Roe suggested installing a frame on the wall and attaching to it a digitally-printed vinyl banner of the mural.
"This project took a lot of grit," said Mural Arts executive director Jane Golden of the adjustments needed to bring the mural to fruition. "Sometimes you have a project where you encounter every obstacle, but you know it’s a great project so you do everything you can and push through."
The cost of the project was about $80,000, with Christina Morin Graham and her husband, Steven Graham, making a substantial contribution.
On Jan. 11, "Floating Dogwood" was at long last installed.
The artwork, Tremblay emphasizes, was created not just for the enjoyment of patients but for their medical caregivers and other Jefferson staffers who are such a vital part of the treatment process and "who showed up every day, who were always cheerful," she said. "Their tone was so upbeat. Every doctor, nurse, intern, resident and every person who came in to clean my room and do my laundry — across the board, they were amazing."
The mural, noted Jane Golden, is especially beautiful while the sun is setting.
"This is about resilience," Golden said about the mural. "I think of what a resilient, wonderful person Michele is."