For many Long Islanders holed up inside because of cold weather and COVID-19-related restrictions, spring can’t come soon enough. And for the patients and staff at the Northport VA Medical Center, the season of promise came early this year.
It arrived on a sturdy, 8-by-4-foot Masonite panel, courtesy of a "QuaranTEAM" of artists who paint colorful, custom-designed murals for the Huntington-based organization Splashes of Hope. The halcyon image of rolling green pastures dotted with budding cherry blossom trees, bunnies and butterflies joins the dozens of "Splashes" that have transformed nondescript, fluorescent-lit walls throughout the Suffolk County health-care campus.
"During the pandemic, people are starting to understand the mental torment of isolation," said Heather Buggée, 51, artist and founder of the international nonprofit focused on brightening medical and social services facilities.
"They don’t just transform buildings, but the people in the buildings," said Joe Sledge, the VA’s health systems specialist. "They help patients heal, not only by bringing the outdoors in, but by what is conveyed in every brush stroke — that the veterans are remembered, that their service and sacrifices are appreciated."
Despite its historic challenges, 2020 has been a banner — so to speak — year for the placard-painting organization. Its network of some 60 volunteer and freelance artists completed 288 murals and distributed 333 "Friend on the Mend" coloring-book gift sets to hospitalized children. While during the pandemic Splashes of Hope has had to put its projects in far-flung places on hold (they have splashed sites in Cairo, Paris and Kharkiv, Ukraine, to name a few), it did reach its lofty goal of splashing locations throughout all 50 states, recently rounding out the list with an emergency shelter in Montana and a women’s services agency in Hawaii.
Honoring essential workers
Moreover, the COVID-19 crisis has impelled Splashes of Hope to grow its mission. Along with painting the underwater scenes, local landmarks and fairy-tale tableaux that patients often request for the made-to-order compositions, the charity has turned its attention to paying tribute to the health-care workers who make healing possible. Last summer, murals sponsored by Maspeth Federal Savings honoring doctors, nurses and staff on the front lines, including one panel framed with the phrase "thank you" repeated in 18 languages, were mounted in the front entrances of Jamaica, Elmhurst and Flushing hospitals in Queens. Once sponsors are found, designs for the homages are solicited and selected by the organization in collaboration with the facility where they are installed.
"The murals are a daily reminder and permanent legacy of the sacrifices health care heroes have made during the pandemic," said Buggée’s daughter, Sarah Baecher, the nonprofit’s executive director.
As part of the same initiative, Splashes of Hope has also launched a program to honor essential workers on murals hung not inside exam rooms, specialized hospital units or residential care homes, but painted on exterior building walls in well-trafficked neighborhoods. The program’s first public work, featuring masked and caped health care "superheroes," was funded by an online campaign and unveiled in October on the side of Aboff's Paint Store in Huntington Station.
"We have received great feedback from the community so far. Not only does it help beautify Huntington, but it sends a strong message of unity and support for everyone working so hard to keep us safe," said Matt Aboff, one of the store’s owners.
Splashes artist Grace Barrett, a retired art teacher from Commack who created and climbed scaffolding to execute the mural’s winning design, was grateful, too, for the project. "In the midst of all this chaos and uncertainty, it helped me make sense of the world around me," she explained. "I was able to have a sense of purpose."
For Buggée, that sense of purpose came decades ago when a close friend underwent cancer treatment at a hospital.
"It was scary and intimidating with all the medical equipment," she recalled. "As artists, we talked about wanting to do something to make the environment more conducive to healing." After her friend’s death in 1989, Buggée reached out to Blythedale Children’s Hospital in upstate Valhalla to realize their vision. She left the medical center with a box of square tiles, which she painted over the course of a weekend with vibrant, upbeat designs. "They were installed above bedridden children who were staring at ceilings all day," she explained.
The experience imbued Buggée with a desire to study fresco mural painting and, after attending the Connecticut Institute of Art, she went on to do so at the Studio Arts College International program in Florence (with a young Sarah in tow). Back in the States at her mother’s home in Shirley, Buggée "hit the books" to learn the ins-and-outs of establishing a nonprofit and began to assemble a board of directors.
Splashes of Hope’s current co-presidents, Lindenhurst couple Monica and Roman Krawczyk, have been involved nearly from its inception, providing its first office space, extensive help with fundraising and sponsorship, and even a Splashmobile, the utility vehicle the organization uses to shuttle supplies and finished work.
"We heard about Heather and her organization from a friend who saw her on News12 over 24 years ago. We set up a meeting, fell in love with Heather and the Splashes mission, and have been involved ever since," said Monica.
In 1998, the group moved its expanding operations to an outbuilding on the grounds of Meadow Croft, a historic estate in Sayville owned by Suffolk County. "There was no heat or running water," Buggée recalled of the arrangement. "The county asked if we would like to occupy the space rent-free in exchange for giving tours to the public of what had once been the studio of John Ellis Roosevelt."
Over the past 20 years, Splashes of Hope has enjoyed a similar work-exchange arrangement in its current digs at Coindre Hall, a French medieval-style château built by gentleman farmer George McKesson Brown now under the auspices of the Suffolk parks department.
As a family-run enterprise (Buggée’s husband, Jimmy Knapp, is one of its chief ambassadors), Splashes has been able to maintain it own COVID-19 "bubble" and continue to conduct business from the nonprofit’s stately Huntington headquarters, its executive director noted.
Still, Baecher, who cleaned brushes and watched her mom and fellow painters in the studio throughout her childhood, is quick to recognize Splashes’ dedicated network of artists. "Our volunteers made our goal happen," she said, noting a significant increase in the pool of people offering up their talents during the pandemic.
"They are the most caring, single-minded group," said Barrett of the Splash team with whom she had worked shoulder-to-shoulder several times a week before the coronavirus forced everyone to retreat to makeshift home studios. To facilitate its mission during the COVID-19 era, the nonprofit has dedicated monthly "Grab & Go" events at Coindre Hall for artists to pick up paint palettes, Masonite panels, ceiling tiles and other supplies needed to work in their respective so-called isolation stations. "Before artists volunteered for one or two hours. Now, if they can’t sleep at night, they’re painting," Buggée noted, adding, "It can be very therapeutic."
"Heather, Sarah and Jimmy not only want us to continue to do good work, but they do a very good job of making us feel connected and valued," Barrett said about Splashes’ standing Thursday afternoon Zoom meetings, ongoing chain of inspiring emails and monthly virtual painting workshops.
The sense of community is one Splashes of Hope volunteer manager Elizabeth Shafer is charged with fostering and expanding. The 20-year-old artist from Massapequa first made her own big splash with the nonprofit as an intern in 2019. On her return to the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, where she is pursuing a degree in art education, Shafer launched a Boston chapter (longtime Splash artist Catherine Brown runs a sister chapter in Naples, Florida).
"I was at a low point," Shafer recalled, "and Splashes changed my life. It combines my love of service and making art and reignited my passion."
Suffering from the rare disorder of Albinism, Shafer struggles with a significant impairment of her vision yet sees her vulnerability as a vehicle for connecting with others. "I need to look closer at things," she explained. "My nose is always touching the paper. How I see opens up the conversation."
Shafer has been working in her family home’s basement on an "I Spy"-themed mural featuring objects beginning with each letter of the alphabet. Once complete, it will be cut up like a jigsaw puzzle and used post-COVID for one of Splashes’ "Painting for a Purpose" events as a corporate-sponsored team-building activity at national business conventions and conferences. "They are hands-on philanthropic gestures. Attendees actually paint in real time," Baecher explained about the popular program. After 6-year-old Dylan, the nephew of a conference organizer, participated at an event, he submitted the winning design for a mural honoring health-care heroes. The painting, sponsored by the American Bankers Association, now takes pride of place on a wall of Virtua Hospital in Voorhees, New Jersey.
Along with corporate entities, the nonprofit relies on foundations and individual contributors for the stream of funds that make splashing walls of burn units, treatment centers, special-needs camps, nursing homes and other care facilities all possible.
"Our goal for 2021," Monica Krawczyk noted of the organization’s silver-anniversary year, "is to clear our current waiting list of over 100 facilities across the country waiting to be ‘splashed.’ "
Hope brought home
Through a local Make-A-Wish chapter, some private bedrooms have been the recipients of the whimsical splashes, too. "It was a natural fit," said Make-A-Wish sponsor Dave Gussaroff, who serves as a liaison between the two organizations. "We felt a Wish Child could definitely use a visual reminder of a wish granted or a wish yet to be."
With the pandemic putting wish-granting on hold for the program’s critically ill children, the murals have been in strong demand. Five-year-old Stella Dickinson from East Islip had dreamed of swimming with Princess Ariel (of Disney’s "The Little Mermaid") but has meanwhile taken solace dreaming under a whirl of her favorite things. "Someone Stella never met had the talent to create what she envisioned," said her grateful mom, Lisa, of the fanciful depiction of rock ’n’ roll queen Barb from the movie "Trolls 2" onstage before a packed audience of sea horses, starfish and snow leopards. "She is still noticing all the little details."
Similarly, East Norwich resident Al LaRosa is hoping the custom-themed murals honoring his late father will bring a lot of joy to their viewers. The murals, funded with donations in lieu of gifts for LaRosa’s 2019 wedding to his wife, Jenny, were recently installed at Our Lady of Consolation Nursing & Rehabilitative Care Center and the pediatric floor of Good Samaritan Hospital Medical Center, both in West Islip.
"We chose Our Lady of Consolation because Big Al spent some time there in his later years," LaRosa explained. The paintings depict familiar Brooklyn icons including the Coney Island Cyclone and the Brooklyn Bridge, along with the clothes line-draped fire escapes, rooftop pigeon coops and neighborhood storefronts that describe where the beloved man had spent his earlier days. "Our hope is that it will help the healing process of the other patients there," LaRosa said.
To be sure, the hand-painted murals are a great comfort. Splashes’ Elizabeth Shafer recalled seeing a little boy at one hospital in tears, fearful to have his blood drawn. Then his mom pointed out a bunny depicted on the phlebotomy room ceiling and the crying immediately stopped.
"There is so much more to Splashes than meets the eye," said Shafer. "The murals have a practical purpose, but also deeper significance. They show someone is there — that someone does care."
To fulfill its mission, Splashes of Hope is always looking for new volunteer artists, administrative staff, project sponsors, supply and monetary donations — and walls to paint. Contact the Huntington-based organization at splashesofhope.org or call 631-424-8230 to learn more.