Registered Nurse Danielle Radaelli thought the University of New Mexico Psychiatric Center felt more like a prison than a hospital. She wasn't the only one.
“When I first walked in, it looked like a jail," agrees Christine Esquivel, RN supervisor. "If I was a patient I wouldn’t want it to look like a jail.”
So Radaelli got in touch with the UNM art department, looking for a volunteer to make an institutional space feel more welcoming. The choice to use art student James Houston was a no-brainer. “When the teachers asked who wanted to do the work, James was the only one who raised his hand out of some 50 students,” Radaelli says.
The result is 93 foot-long mural in the hallway where patients are first escorted into the center. Being greeted by Houston's art "really helps the patients to calm down and relax more,” Esquivel says.
Houston was adding some finishing touches a few weeks ago when a large, bearded man in handcuffs was led into the building. As he stepped through the door, light flooded the hallway and lit up the blues and browns Houston had laid down on the walls. The man’s eyes rested on the new scenery, taking a moment to absorb the environment before entering one of the rooms designated for incoming patients.
“We get patients that are agitated, nervous and psychotic,” RN Danielle Radaelli says. “[Houston's] effect on the patients is amazing.”
The staff warned him that some of the colors were too vibrant and the rabbits might scare the patients. He redid the work to produce a mellower mood, focusing on colors, shades and luminosities shown to induce positive feelings in people.
His painting is of a fictional location, but the artist gathered reference material for the piece while in the desert around Cuba and Grants. He started working on the mural in midsummer with the help of fellow UNM art student Michael Padilla. “If he would do something or I would do something, it wouldn’t be contradictory to the overall flow of the piece,” Houston says of their shared vision. As they painted, some of the patients watched them work, while others stared at the walls for hours.
“One guy was talking to the clouds. He just sat down and kept conversing,” Houston says. “One old Indian lady didn’t say anything for about six hours, and right before she was about to leave, she said, ‘I feel like I’m in the desert’.”
Because of the confined space and the possibility of being assaulted by a patient, Houston had to spend more time on the mural than he originally thought he would. He couldn’t wear headphones because he had to be aware of his environment at all times. He says he was alerted ahead of time if a patient posed a threat, and that he would sometimes have to pause in his work to let patients and doctors through the hall.
The only guidance Houston was given was to paint something "New Mexico Zen." At first he used lively colors to fill in the sky and put a few rabbits into the scene, but he ended up painting over them. The staff warned him that some of the colors were too vibrant and the rabbits might scare the patients. He redid the work to produce a mellower mood, focusing on colors, shades and luminosities shown to induce positive feelings in people. For example, Houston says, “Purples and blues tend to have a more calming effect.”
“In hindsight, I bit off more than I could chew,” the artist admits. “I should have probably simplified it more.”
He didn’t simplify things, though, and the hallway is now covered in detailed paintings of native plants, sand dunes, fish swimming through water along the bottom of the wall and a brilliant blue skyline across the top. "The desert kind of cradles you," Houston says, "but it still has the openness from the horizon going back.”
As payment for the job, both student artists will receive six credit hours of class work. Houston says he initially volunteered to do the mural because it was “just a great opportunity, and for shameless self promotion, and to build my portfolio.” But his attitude changed with the paint on the walls. “After a while I started realizing I was doing it for the patients and staff.”