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Art sets the tone in new Pittsburgh hospital building

Next week, UPMC Mercy Pavilion opens for business. The $510 million facility in Uptown will house the hospital’s vision and rehabilitation institutes. But art is a key component inside the nine-story building and on its grounds.

In fact, visitors to the West Atrium will be contributing to an artwork as soon as they enter.

That lobby houses “Murmurations,” one of eight works UPMC commissioned for the pavilion. The piece, by Los Angeles-based artist Susan Narduli, consists of a 24-foot-wide wall-mounted screen with thin vertical bands of LED lights alternating with strips of matte-black metal. The colorful, abstract animations suggest starscapes, or slow-motion fireworks. They’re created by software based on ambient sounds generated by visitors to the lobby, as gathered by four microphones suspended from the high ceiling.

Glass bottles hang from the ceiling inside the hospital atrium.
UPMC Mercy
Kipp Kobayashi's "Storybank" consists of nearly 600 glass bottles suspended from the ceiling.

Narduli said the work was inspired by synesthesia, a condition that causes people to experience one kind of sensory input as another kind — hearing color, for instance, or tasting shapes.

“It takes that life of the lobby and translates it into a different form,” said Narduli. “The idea that you can be with other people and you’re creating something together is quite beautiful.”

Offering beauty, and even messages of healing and hope, is a main purpose of the facility’s art program, which includes cutting-edge pieces like Narduli’s, traditional paintings, and everything in between. Renee Piechocki, the Pittsburgh-based consultant who oversaw the art program, said the works are meant for all visitors, including staff, patients and their companions.

She said the question her team asked was: “How do we engage you, engage your whole brain, so you don’t only feel like a patient, or you only don’t feel like a caregiver, you know you can a have an authentic art experience?”

The pavilion’s East Atrium features “Storybank,” by Los Angeles-based artist Kipp Kobayashi. It consists of nearly 600 glass bottles suspended at varying heights from the high ceiling in an undulating pattern meant to suggest a river. Most of the bottles — typically transparent or in shades of blue or green — were contributed by community members, and all contain handwritten notes or other mementos.

Along with the eight commissions, UPMC Mercy purchased 11 artworks for display. Most are by Pittsburgh artists, including two by people who were treated at the hospital: Errol Mobutu Reynolds, a Hill District resident whose painting “Jazz Spirits on the Hill” celebrates the neighborhood’s culture, and Jared Enrique Quinteros, of South Fayette, whose painting “Miracle 06/17/2021” honors his treatment at Mercy after an accident that left him a paraplegic.

“It’s really just like a tribute to what is possible, to see something that extreme, an injury that bad, and yet, you survive that, and they’re able to actually save your life, so it’s pretty incredible,” said Quinteros. The painting is hung in the facility’s rehab gym; the date in its title references the day a falling tree limb in an area park killed his wife and severed his spinal cord.

Another work created by an artist with a disability is “Mountain Meadows.” It’s a touchable bronze sculpture of a seated man in the building’s rooftop garden created by famed artist Michael Naranjo, who was blinded and lost the use of one hand in the Vietnam War.

The UPMC Mercy Pavilion is intended to integrate care and rehab functions for both vision patients and those undergoing rehabilitation for other physical ailments. It houses exam rooms, operating rooms, a pharmacy, and even a life-skills apartment, complete with kitchen and bathroom, for those relearning daily living skills. The rooftop garden includes steps, ramps, and differently textured surfaces so people in rehab can practice mobility skills.

Other commissioned artworks with higher-tech aspects in reception areas are “Vital,” Adam Frank’s computer-generated mural depicting a photorealistic tree whose leaves flicker in a digital breeze, and “Synergy,” Shohei Katayama’s wall-mounted kinetic sculpture that uses light and special glass to create slowly shifting forms.

“One of the reasons why we wanted to have kinetic works in the reception areas is it’s where people can wait a long time, and kinetic artwork can be a delightful distraction,” Piechocki said.

The other commissioned pieces include: Shervone Neckles’ “The Lunar Portal,” eight lit-up aluminum archways inspired by the phases of the moon and situated in the hospital’s plaza; Pittsburgh-based Lori Helpner’s “Mercy Movement: Drawing with Light,” photographs “created with UPMC Mercy community participation”; and “25 Portraits,” Deborah Aschheim’s color drawings of patients and staff.

Other Pittsburgh artists whose work was purchased for the pavilion include Ron Donoughe, Valerie Lueth, Laura Jean McLaughlin, Njaimeh Njie, Mikael Owunna, and Ivette Spradlin and Lenore Thomas.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: