For the past three years, artists Lois Shelton and Maggie Smith have devoted much care and attention to developing an understanding of what it means to be a nurse at Harborview Medical Center. They pored over archival research materials and interviewed many nurses – both current and retired. Their task: to translate what they learned into an art experience that fosters a heightened awareness of nurses’ presence, history and skills, and to site it for daily experience by many people.
Their artwork, entitled The Nurses’ Tunnel, will be dedicated on December 12 at Noon in the Harborview Research & Training Building Auditorium, 300 Ninth Avenue in Seattle, as part of a larger nursing recognition event. The public is invited to attend.
In this guest blog post, Lois and Maggie describe the project and what it means to them:
This project has offered the immense privilege of spending time at Harborview, meeting with nurses, and having our eyes opened about the great profession of nursing. A number of nurses generously talked with us about the realities of their work and their lives. Seeing a small part of what goes on in this amazing public hospital has been a life-changing experience.
We chose a tunnel that runs under Ninth Avenue, between the two 1931 buildings that began Harborview, as the artwork site because it resonates with the footsteps of nurses from the past to the present. Historically, the tunnel was used by University of Washington nursing students walking between their residence in Harborview Hall and the teaching hospital. Today, it is a major thoroughfare at the core of an expanded Harborview complex. It’s a place to experience a bit of history and emotion, while in motion.
Everything is in motion in the tunnel – people-in-passing, and the light, sound and images we brought together. Our tunnel illumination, a calming progression through a color spectrum is a reference to the role of light as the source of all life. We hope it provides for a place of respite and reflection. The recorded voices of nurses recount stories and personal experiences in the nurses’ own words. It was important for us to have the nurses speak for themselves. And the video in the tunnel alcove interweaves historic and contemporary photographs and text, celebrating the continuing evolution of nursing at Harborview.
The result is an artwork that can’t easily be seen or heard in its entirety on one occasion, but which unfolds itself over many encounters. This allows for a continually fresh experience, especially important for the hospital staff that travel through the tunnel on a daily basis.
We think of The Nurses’ Tunnel as a continuous river, or a stream of story particles – first one ripple emerges to catch the light and attention, eventually yielding to another, and then another. Together, the elements create a sort of heartbeat for the tunnel. It is an expression of change and possibility, an homage to a remarkable group of nurses who devote their working lives to skillfully caring for and healing others.
-Lois Shelton and Maggie Smith
Lois Shelton is an independent documentary filmmaker based in Seattle. Maggie Smith is an artist known for her public commissions in tile, stone and metal.
Images © Lois Shelton and Maggie Smith, The Nurses’ Tunnel, 2012, video stills, King County Public Art Collection. Photos of University of Washington nursing students c. 1950, Nurse cadets in front of Harborview Hall and Call for nurses to join the Red Cross Reserve c. 1940, courtesy of University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections.