Volunteer painters transform hospital ceiling tiles into art

Daphne Tully first picked up a paintbrush the year I was born. Back in 1972, she was listening to a CBC radio interview with a watercolor artist who insisted the talent can be picked up by anyone at any stage. “The only thing an artist needs to do is to work everyday for five years and be determined to do it,” recalls Daphne of the on-air conversation. “Well, I’m a very determined person!” The next day, she went out and bought a how-to book and some supplies. Her hands have resembled rainbows ever since.

The day I visited Daphne at her Toronto home, she was mixing deep blue and green paints on an ironing board set up in her kitchen, a room that serves the duel purpose of food preparation and artistic realization. A petite woman with a soft voice, she seemed totally immersed in the task at hand. And far departed from her favorite medium of watercolors, today’s painting would have even the most disinterested in art looking twice.

To imagine how truly cool her latest painting is, first picture yourself walking through the hallways of Sunnybrook (or any hospital for that matter). Now look up. What do you see? Likely a stark white and bland expanse of ceiling, adorned only with the occasional water stain. But with the wave of their magic brushes, Daphne and other volunteer artists at Sunnybrook offer patients, families and staff a little visual candy. One by one, they are transforming these utilitarian ceiling tiles into original works of art, and even recreations of paintings from artistic bigwigs like Van Gogh. Sky’s the limit (pardon the pun).

The Ceiling Tile Project started over a decade ago when a patient commented on how ugly they were to look at. It’s now evolved into a fundraising vehicle for the Sunnybrook Volunteer Association (SVA). In addition to revenue generated from plant sales, the gift shop, the beauty salon, holiday greeting card drives, coffee carts, used books sales and art shows, the $100 cost to sponsor a ceiling tile helps pad out the SVA’s 8 year, $1.5 million pledge towards capital expansion of the Emergency and Trauma Department.

The problem is, only about 70 of the ceiling tiles have been officially sponsored, leaving hundreds of these small works of art unclaimed. The SVA is urging people to consider them for birthday gifts, wedding registries and even memorials. Each sponsored tile is commemorated with the sponsor’s name on the wall below, making their contribution clear to those perusing the hallways.

Of late, the tiles have provoked some healthy interdepartmental competition. A group of 5 trauma surgeons headed up by Dr. Peter Chu, recently sponsored 36 tiles to adorn the hallway wrapping around the nursing station on C5. This last stop for recovering trauma patients now has a gallery-like feel that is truly uplifting for patients coming in. “I challenge other wards and programs to do the same for their inpatient wards!” says Dr. Chu. His colleague Dr. Homer Tien adds that a positive state of mind can help with a patient’s recovery. “Hopefully these pictures can contribute to that.”

Daphne has no doubt about the healing power associated with art. “It’s really the pleasure we can give to the patients, or the comfort we can give them, that’s what I enjoy.” It’s medicine she been benefiting from personally for over half her life, so why not spread the joy? If you’d like to do the same, visit the Sunnybrook Volunteer Association website.

About the author

Monica Matys

Monica Matys is a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook.

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  • I am a local artist, my brother is currently in critical care at sunnybrook and I just love the painted ceiling tiles. How can I paint one?

  • We have sent your request on to the Sunnybrook Volunteer Association and they will be in touch with the information you are looking for. Thank you so much, and wishing you and your brother all the best.

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