Students Noah DeWald and Savannah Mohacsi were not exactly sure what their summer internship at Stanford Health Care would entail. Apprenticing with master painters to bring to life a conceptual work of art by an iconic 20th-century American artist that will be seen by thousands was beyond their imagination, as was the profound realization that art can contribute to the healing process.

Senior Savannah Mohacsi, master painter Lexie Bouwsma and junior Noah DeWald work to execute Wall Drawing #911 by Sol LeWitt. (Image credit: Courtesy Stanford Health Care)

DeWald and Mohacsi’s project was to execute an 18-by-10-foot mural designed by Sol LeWitt (1928–2007). It is one of seven commissioned works at the new Stanford Hospital, and the only one that is essentially a set of instructions.

LeWitt was a conceptual artist who challenged the traditional notion that art had to manifest physically for it to be art. Therefore, some of his art pieces are simply an idea or concept without a form. When Wall Drawing #911 was acquired for the hospital, it was essentially a certificate for the design and the rights to paint it according to mathematical adjustments to fit a particular space.

The space is a prominent third floor wall of the hospital, viewable from the entrance of the expansive atrium lobby. The execution team consisted of the two interns working under master painters Lexie Bouwsma and Gabriel Hurier, who have experience installing LeWitt’s wall drawings. It was essential to the painting process that the project be guided by their expertise so that the artist’s original idea would be accurately conceived through his methods.

The mural was originally designed in 1999 and has only been painted on one other occasion at the Marian Goodman Gallery, New York. It required 75 rolls of masking tape and 24 days of meticulous and steady hand painting, sanding and layering to complete. The acquisition of the work and installation was generously underwritten through the support of Carolyn and Preston Butcher.

Master painters Gabriel Hurier and Lexie Bouwsma with undergraduates Noah DeWald and Savannah Mohacsi and the completed work. (Image credit: Courtesy Stanford Health Care)

Senior Mohacsi, who is majoring in human biology and minoring in art practice, said she often looks for ways for her interest in medicine to intersect with her art. She explores ways to use art to understand and present the intricacies of human physiology, and sees art as a vehicle for self-reflection and healing. She said of her internship experience: “Being able to create this mural in a hospital space has allowed my artistic skills to serve a greater purpose, knowing that patients and families who are experiencing the most challenging and emotional times will be able to look to the LeWitt mural for a brief moment of refuge and experience the unexpected brilliance that the piece exudes from its colorful geometric array.”

Additionally, Mohacsi is studying how the mind and body shapes human experience and her internship has prompted her to think about “how art can serve as a medium for our minds to reflect on our experiences, and in turn that can reflect how we feel in our bodies and our health.”

DeWald, a junior majoring in computer science and minoring in art practice, had prior experience with mural making, but he had never collaborated with other artists on a project of this scale. Painting a large-scale public piece has been a longstanding dream of his. “To me, there is something special about artworks in public spaces that people can see and interact with. This internship has been such a unique opportunity to explore that type of art,” he said.

“I’ve seen plenty of art in museums and exhibitions, but I had never fully considered the role of art in hospitals before. After working on this project and seeing how much effort goes into the art program here, I’ve been able to learn so much about how art can benefit the healing process.”

Becoming intimately familiar with the seven floors of the new hospital over the summer, DeWald observed that well-placed artworks can have a profound impact on patients and hospital staff. In a hospital where people will see the same artworks day after day, he believes that a different kind of thought process is required to make sure that these works resonate with people after repeated viewings. “That’s why I have so much respect for artists who really think about the placement and purpose of their art.”

Mohacsi concurs. “As a pre-med student, I’ve spent a fair amount of time shadowing doctors. This summer, I still shadowed in the hospital, but for placement of art. I was following Connie Wolf, who oversees the art program, through the hospital as she was planning installations, and I couldn’t help but think about how she was ‘diagnosing’ the space and formulating her ‘treatment’ for what artworks would best suit the room, as well as how people will engage with the pieces. I will never take for granted art installation after this internship because you really have to understand that the art you install has to accommodate the diverse backgrounds of people that will come into the space, which is no simple task.”

The hospital leadership recognized that art can be an integral part of the healing process early on, so artwork throughout the facility was always a part of the master plan. The collection of over 400 works of art installed inside and outside the new Stanford Hospital were donated or acquired with private monetary donations. There are also two significant loans from the San Francisco Asian Art Museum and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The entire art program is led by an all-volunteer art commission chaired by Linda Meier, ’61, member of the Stanford Health Care Board of Directors and former member of the Stanford Board of Trustees, and directed by Connie Wolf, ’81, former director of the Cantor Arts Center.