Heart and soul on a hospital wall: A new painting links old and new in more ways than one
May 18, 2007
NORTHAMPTON - When visitors to the new wing at Northampton's Cooley Dickinson Hospital ask for directions to the older portions of the building, they are likely to be advised to look for the pink fairy at the end of the hallway.
From a distance, at least, that's what the central figure in a newly installed painting located in a second-floor connecting corridor looks like. Created by Northampton artist Gregory Stone to celebrate the hospital's new addition, the painting depicts 93-year-old Eileen Hall and other members of the city-based and internationally known Young@Heart Chorus.
Wearing his trademark leather jacket and sneakers and a button that says "Make Art, Not War," Stone, 60, spoke about the work at the hospital recently, standing next to his painting.
A resident of Florence, Stone said he chose Hall to be the painting's focus because, in many ways, she epitomizes the chorus.
The 4-by-5-foot oil painting features the gray-haired Hall dancing front and center. She wears a dress that glitters pink and blue - and bright pink wings. Behind her, chorus members sing backup, accompanied by a trio of musicians. In the foreground, a group of school children enjoy the show.
Caught in midstep, Hall clutches her skirt daintily in one hand; in the other - in true fairy fashion - she holds a wand.
Along with being a talented performer, "she's just a character," said Stone. "She's strong and it looks like she's having fun."
The painting and its placement on the hospital's wall came about following a meeting between Stone and hospital administrators, project managers for the new addition and the hospital's art exhibit curator, Betty Ann Krywicki.
"When we started talking with Greg, we talked about a piece of artwork that would do a bunch of things," said Richard Corder, the hospital's vice president of operations and facilities management. The painting was meant to serve as a visual cue to help people find their way between the old and new buildings, he said. More important, the work was envisioned as a symbol of the old and the new. A painting of the Young@Heart Chorus fit the bill perfectly, he said.
The chorus, he said, epitomizes how what is considered "old" can still be full of vitality, said Corder. It shows how the old building is still going strong, while the new addition brings in a breath of life.
"I love it," said Corder of the painting. "It causes you to stop and look at it. It touches people in different ways."
'They're just so real'
Before putting paint to canvas, Stone went to several of the chorus's rehearsals at the Florence Community Center to see the group in action.
"I would go there for one or two hours," said Stone, "and come out smiling - they're just so real."
The chorus, whose members' ages average about 80, has made a name for itself in this country and abroad for its unique repertoire, which includes tongue-in-cheek remakes of popular rock tunes, like "Stairway to Heaven," that carry special significance for those getting on in years. The group's reputation has also been built on its sterling performances.
Chorus director Bob Cilman guides them through the choreographed songs as he would any professional cast, said Stone.
"He treats them normally," said Stone, "not as old people."
Stone based his painting, which took about three months to finish, on direct observations of the group, as well as photographs, composing it to include carefully selected elements, both real and imagined.
The chorus members on the left, for example, include several longtime members, one of whom died last year. Those who are familiar with the chorus's past performances will recognize the elaborate white wigs members wore for their 1991 performance of "Louis Lou I." On the right, playing with Miriam Leader of Northampton, who has accompanied the chorus on her violin for 22 years, are legendary guitarists B.B. King and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Stone's fanciful additions to the scene.
The painting includes six small red hearts that Stone has scattered here and there, inviting viewers to hunt for them.
A native of Athol, Stone is well known in the Valley for paintings that depict Northampton street scenes and people, works that are still on display in many area restaurants and bars. He has had numerous exhibits, including shows of his recent series on blues musicians and bird sculptures.
As he talked about the painting, several people passing by, both visitors and hospital personnel, greeted him and congratulated him on his piece. "Hey, Stoney, it looks great," said one.
Cilman, who also heads the Northampton Arts Council, said having a painting of the chorus in the hospital "is very, very nice" on a number of levels.
"Cooley Dickinson has been great to the chorus," he said, providing medical care to many members and support for their artistic careers as well. In 2001, Cilman said, the hospital gave the chorus three new wheelchairs, for members who had difficulty walking, before the Young@Heart headed to performances in Norway.
The chairs have been a lot of places since, said Cilman, "even on stage."
He said having the painting in the hospital is important because it celebrates the health and vibrancy of older people.
"The group represents something for older people in this community. It's nice to have a reminder for the people who have been (to the hospital)."
He agreed with Stone's choice of Hall for the painting's focal point. "She's an incredible human being, incredibly interesting on stage - she's really quite a performer," he said. Presented at the Cooley Dickinson's opening celebration for the new $50 million New Patient Building and Kittredge Surgery Center in April, the painting was a surprise for chorus members, who sang at the event.
"They didn't know anything about the painting," said Stone. When it was unveiled, chorus members "checked each other out," said Stone. "They all liked it." Hall is now in the hospital due to a recent illness, but was pleased with it when someone brought in a print of Stone's piece to show her.
Edwin Rehor of Goshen, who has been in the Young@Heart chorus since 2003, said he's honored to be in the group and to have it pictured in a painting on the hospital wall.
"It's really a good place to have it because people in the local area can see it," said Rehor. "But to really see what we do you have to go to one of our shows."
by Phoebe Mitchell, staff writer
Daily Hampshire Gazette
Thursday May 17, 2007