In a hallway of the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, past the colorful lobby with a large Big Bird statue and the patient check-in, hangs an eight-foot-wide bed sheet showcasing a replica of pointillist painter Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.”
Yesterday — 15 years after the replica was finished — patients who created the piece, their families and hospital employees gathered around the painting for a small reunion as they reflected on their experience creating the work.
Though the painting took Seurat two years to complete, the 135 hospital patients who participated in the project took three months to complete their imitation, which has been hanging in the hospital ever since.
Adrienne Rudolph, Ann Arbor native and a retired art teacher, orchestrated the pointillist recreation after years of struggling to bring artistic expression to the children being treated at Mott.
According to Rudolph, bringing art to the hospital was a struggle because many patients lacked the energy after heavy treatments to take part in activities like painting, sculpting and making collages.
“Many of them were too sick,” Rudolph said. “They were taking medications that made them too sleepy, or a technician would whisk them away for a test before we could begin.”
Rudolph began painting on the casts of patients as well as face painting their bodies, which she said was sometimes easier than trying to coordinate an art project. In the 14 years she worked at the hospital, Rudolph said she painted every image imaginable, including cowboys, animals and superheroes.
Rudolph said she even painted on the heads of children with leukemia in the cancer ward.
“A lot of the time, if the kids knew they were going to lose their hair, they asked to have it shaved right away because they were so anxious to get their heads painted,” she said.
Despite her success with using art to lift spirits, Rudolph continued to search for a way to encourage children in the hospital to express themselves artistically. She said she found a solution during a visit to the Art Institute of Chicago, where she was blown away by Seurat’s masterpiece, “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.” To create the picture of people sitting and strolling in a park, Seurat developed pointillism — a technique that involves forming a picture with dots of paint.
“I thought, ‘This is it. Eureka! I’ve found it.’ Because I knew anyone could paint dots,” Rudolph said of seeing the painting.
Rudolph immediately contacted the institute for permission to replicate the painting and used a recycled, old hospital bed sheet in place of a heavy canvas.
By splitting the painting into a grid, Rudolph was able to transform the 10-foot work onto the eight-foot sheet. Patients could choose which square they wanted to paint, which allowed them to work individually on a small portion of the painting in their rooms.
Because it was easy to transport, the recycled bed sheet traveled through burn units, bone marrow transfer units and several other hospital areas with patients who had injuries that prevented them from participating in other art projects.
Rudolph said even if patients only had a few minutes, they were able to contribute a few dots. During her presentation yesterday, she pointed out sections of the painting where different artists worked.
“The young person who did this figure had to have extensive surgery,” Rudolph said while gesturing to a woman strolling in the painting. “She painted until the minute the gurney came to get her.”
Because of the pointillist style, patients with every kind of injury could partake in the project. The border of the painting was done by sick toddlers as young as 22 months old, and Rudolph said two paralyzed accident victims painted their dots “painstakenly” with special brushes in their mouths.
Rudolph said a young blind patient was able to paint the sun in the painting, as his mother guided his hand. She said that though he had never seen the sun, he said he had felt its warmth, and she explained to him that there are warm colors that correspond to the sun.
“All of the time he was painting he was thinking about what yellow could look like,” she said. “And I really think that he got it, because he not only used his yellows, but he mixed in some oranges and did an absolutely beautiful job.”
Though it has been 15 years since they painted their portion of the painting, several patients returned to the hospital to reflect on their experience at Mott.
For many of them, the painting is an important relic of the difficulties they faced during their hospital stays.
Joe Pollack, a patient who participated, said he is doing much better today than he was when he painted his dots.
“I worked on this painting 15 years ago when I was waiting on a heart transplant,” he said. “My heart is now as old as this painting.”
LSA junior Erin McElhenie said she was only four years old when she contributed to the bed sheet, and Sunday was her first time returning to the hospital since her treatment.
“I had cancer when I painted,” she said. “Now I’m 15 years cancer-free. Most of my time here is kind of blurry, but being here today helps me to remember.”
After the presentation, Rudolph explained that because hospitalized children have rigid existences and are unable to make any of their own decisions, giving the patients a chance to do art is important because it allows them to make choices.
“Art is very empowering,” she said. “It’s a wonderful method of self-expression and sick children really relate to it.
Rudolph, who spoke during the presentation with tears in her eyes, said she feels a strong connection to the patients. She keeps in touch with some of them and recently attended the wedding of a girl she worked with many years ago.
Rudolph also said she had nothing to do with the accomplishment of the piece itself. Though she said she never painted a single dot, some of the ex-patients were inspired by her work and the work of hospital staff.
Rudolph said after the “last dot was dotted,” she wanted to do something significant with the painting. In honor of Mott’s 25th anniversary, the patients and their families decided to donate the work to the hospital.
The piece, which is now framed and hung, holds a special meaning to the patients who come to the hospital, Rudolph said.
“It is a monument to all of the children who came to this hospital, and all the children who ever will come here,” she said.
Melissa Barghs is a mother of one of the patients who contributed to the painting with a few dots at the lower left corner of the scene. Her daughter was an infant when she painted, but Barghs said the hospital did everything to keep her happy.
“It was a great distraction from what was happening in our lives at the time,” she said.
Now, years after the painting was finished, her daughter is attending college, and Barghs said little things like this remind her that she is very fortunate.
“We never thought it would be finished all the way,” she said. “I think it turned out beautifully.”