The Free Press, Mankato, MN

December 13, 2012

Painting with purpose: Bethany art instructor submits to high standards to heal with his art

By Tanner Kent
The Free Press

MANKATO — Recently, William Bukowski’s most frequent customer approved one of his paintings to hang in a birthing center at a Twin Cities hospital.

It’s a large-scale beach scene populated by a group of children varying in age and ethnicity. The longtime Bethany Lutheran College art instructor has worked on the 30-foot mural for several weeks now and estimates he’s about 75 percent finished.

But the approval came with a few stipulations: Open the eyes on the child whose eyes are closed, and put glasses on this other child. Oh, and make one of the babies bald. (Bukowski suspects his customer may also ask him to tone down an aggressive shade of red he chose for the beach ball.)

Some artists wouldn’t take kindly to someone, even a customer, demanding changes to the composition of their work. But in this case, Bukowski is happy to accommodate.

“When you do public work, you have to be willing to shelve your ego,” said the man whose paintings have been placed in hospitals around the state as part of the Arts & Healing program at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota. He’s also produced large-scale works on the Bethany campus, such as the chapel mural and the fresco in the science building.

“But with this program, your work is approved, paid for and somebody is excited to get it. For an artist, that’s really exciting.”

Nearly three years ago, Bukowski wasn’t quite sure what he was signing up for when he responded to an announcement posted on a website for Minnesota artists. After replying to the call for artists, Bukowski was met with a 10-page application.

Months later, he was selected along with 58 other applicants to submit a series of paintings for approval by the Arts & Healing program advisors. Artists were given a topic pertaining to children — Bukowski’s first assignment was creating 10 images based on the theme of “children and painting” — and each piece was carefully reviewed to ensure it met a variety of hospital standards.

Some standards related to the appearance of the painting. For example, children’s hospitals tend to avoid the color red because it evokes intense emotions; organizers also wanted paintings to reflect diversity and remain inclusive of all different types of children.

Other standards related to the physical materials of the painting. Bukowski was required to apply a flame-resistant finish to the wood panels on his current mural, and he has had to use acrylic paint in some cases because some oil paints contain traces of carcinogens.

Once approved, each painting must then be sponsored and paid for by a supporting donor. When all those steps are complete, the artist then begins painting a final composition.

Though Bukowski admits the process can get cumbersome, he said the rewards outweigh all other considerations. As such, he’s diligently accommodated every specification, every guideline, every revision and every fix along the way.

While maintaining a full teaching load, he’s painted by night and on weekends, producing 18 oil paintings and two acrylic murals that are located in Children’s Hospitals in Minneapolis and St. Paul. He also has works in St. Joseph’s Hospital (St. Paul), Regions Hospital (St. Paul), St. Francis Regional Medical Center (Shakopee) and Mayo Clinic (Rochester), among others.

“This is an ideal program — if you can handle the restrictions,” Bukowski said.

Of course, there’s a certain romantic notion to the program as well.

Bukowski’s current mural is destined for the birthing center at Abbott Northwestern in Minneapolis. The nine panels will adorn the corridor to the main entry, ensuring that each expecting mother and family will see Bukowski’s work. Other paintings have been placed in family waiting rooms, outside of children’s hospital rooms and in common areas.

As an artist, Bukowski naturally agrees with the founding premise of the Arts & Healing program — that art can contribute to a patient’s healing — and said it’s an honor to have his work viewed in that context. He also said he enjoys the challenges of working for such an exacting customer and the reward of seeing it on display in a public space.

“This is a very unique program,” Bukowski said. “I’m happy to be a part of it.”