Arlene Sullivan’s Murals Bring A Different Kind of Healing to the Hospital

When Arlene Sullivan’s newborn ended up in the hospital’s intensive care unit for over two months, she got an idea.  Tired of looking at bleak walls and listening to the beeps of machines, this art teacher decided to establish Changing Images Art Foundation.  Since 1997, she and her team of 4,000 volunteers have created paintings of colorful inspiration for schools, shelters, nursing homes and medical facilities around New York, throughout the country, and around the world.  They've transformed pediatric units into giant “walk-in” books, created outdoor scenes for those who have not felt a fresh breeze on their face in months or that help physical therapy patients focus on taking small steps, picture by picture.  

How do you describe your work? “We’re providing medicine for the soul.  If someone gives you a bouquet of flowers you feel better because someone is thinking of you.  The murals are in places where people don’t expect them to be.  Lobbies are normally decorated to the hilt but where the patients and residents are, there is nothing, especially in nursing homes where people don’t have any say.”

What three adjectives best describe you? “Empathetic.  Energetic. Loyal.”

Cats, dogs, birds … describe your pets? “Not crazy about birds.  We have two cats.  My uncle used to live with us and when he passed on, we have his cats.”

Favorite season? “My favorite season is spring.  It’s so beautiful.  The greens are greener and the blues are bluer. You get to start life again every year.  It’s the potential.  You get a new beginning.”

Name a city you’d love to visit.  Why? “I’m not sure about city. I would love to go see Austria because of the mountains.  It looks like the most beautiful place to be.  I’m a sucker for old movies.  I love the Sound of Music.  Wouldn’t you love to go up that mountain and spin around?”

What’s the best thing about being single? “You’re in charge of yourself.  You don’t have to back up. You can say what you want to, go where you want to go - not that you don’t worry about other people - but I think it gives you a freedom in an odd sort of way.”

Describe your ideal “Girls’ Night Out.” “I don’t get out much.  I’m a mom. I’m lucky I have some really good friends so we get together and talk and laugh and act goofy.”

What’s the nicest thing a friend (or friends) have done for you? “About ten years ago, I was diagnosed with cancer and it came out of the blue.  Before the surgery they had suggested I have blood put aside just in case.  My friend and her husband were on vacation and they said they were going to fly home and donate blood.   After the surgery, I had people coming from all over.  I do a lot of community service but to have that outpouring.  I was dumbfounded.”

What do you do for “Arlene” time? “I’ve been trying to read the paper lately.  If I can sit and read for a few minutes I’m happy.”

What’s the best advice you ever received? “Whatever is going to happen is going to happen whether you do or don’t worry about it.  You just have to enjoy your life.  Don’t take life so seriously.  Enjoy the day that you’ve been given because you’re not going to get it back.”

What quality do you admire most in a man? “I would say a sense of humor is key.  I like to laugh.  Life is so crazy all you can do is laugh.”

What quality do you admire most in a woman? “I think it’s the same thing.  My friends when we get together, we laugh.  We’re like, `boy could we write a series.’”

 

Who are your real life heroes? “Barbara Bush.  She says what she thinks.  I admire that."

What is your guilty pleasure? “There is this ice cream called Lady Godiva.  It’s vanilla with chocolate caramel hearts.  If you have that you will never eat any other kind of ice cream ever.  It’s a bazillion calories and you eat the whole thing, let’s face it.”

What is your biggest fear? “Honestly, that I really don’t know what I’m doing.  I was recently divorced and I’ve never been on my own.  I graduated college. I got married.  I had children.  I was a stay at home mom because I think that’s important and now I’m on my own and it’s scary.  I know in my heart my plan is to expand the foundation but what do I know? What if I fail?”

If you could change one thing in your past, what would it be? “I wish I had that sense of independence younger.  I made sure my children went away to school so they had that.  When I told my father I was going to college in art, he nearly had a stroke.  I wish I had enough self confidence to go away.  That would have been nice, to have that experience.”

Other than your own talents, what talent would you most like to have? “Honestly I wish I was more business savvy.  When I walk into a facility, I can see what they need.  You see the design there already and all you have to do is draw. I can organize people but the money aspect, the marketing part, I wish I knew a little bit more.”

What is your motto? Or what words do you live by? “I think that you see a situation and you leave it better than how you found it, whatever it takes, your best to make it better.  If garbage is on the ground pick it up.  If someone needs help, lend a hand.  If everybody offered themselves, the world would be a better place.”