The Healing Art

When Maria Stevenson learned about John Feight's Foundation for Hospital Art, inspiration struck. According to, since founding the organization in 1984, the Atlanta-based artist -- with help from more than 100,000 volunteers -- has completed in excess of 20,000 paintings for nonprofit/charity hospitals and nursing homes in 165 countries. In most cases he outlines a mural, then the patients get to fill in the fun parts themselves.

Stevenson decided to attempt a similar phenomenon in Miami. With a grant from the Cultural Development Group this past May she established the Open Art Studio, a place to get colorful and creative for a few hours each week. No need to be Picasso, just be able to clutch a paintbrush. "It's good for people to come here and have a good time and help the community, and not worry about knowing how to paint," says Stevenson, who prepares canvas panels for volunteers.

Completed panels will be assembled as murals and donated to nonprofit agencies in need of an aesthetic boost. Such groups regularly collect clothes, food, and other essentials for their clients. But the sick, scared, homeless, and hungry they serve definitely could benefit from a touch of beauty in the often dreary, institutional surroundings. Stevenson's current work-in-progress is a vibrant undersea scene of vermilion fish, magenta coral, and lime-green seaweed. Paint, brushes, and even color-coded outlines are provided. All participants need is a smock to keep clothes from becoming part of the project.

Different from an art class, Stevenson offers minimal instruction, cultivating an easygoing atmosphere. And her predrawn panels leave little room for issues of creative control. The emphasis is on process -- emotional and literal. Along with evenhanded strokes, Marjorie Gomez paints verbal pictures, relaying memories of growing up on a small farm in Costa Rica. She says she plans to bring her ten-year-old son with her next time.

Although Stevenson calls her first career path a "big error," the former lawyer from Chile has a knack for salvaging art from the ruins. Since moving to Miami in 1988, she has refashioned herself into an artist and educator. In an increasingly disposable culture, she values what others might take for granted. Deluged by CD-ROMs from America Online, Stevenson, an instructor at the Gladstone Center for abused girls, recently helped residents there transform the glittering discs into mobiles. Unfortunately, says Stevenson, the artists weren't allowed to keep their finished products. That objects of self-expression may double as tools of self-destruction for these girls illustrates both the fragility and the value of Stevenson's role.

"We are for those people, too, who are depressed," she adds of the project. "Instead of being depressed in their houses, they can come here and do something for others."

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Robin Shear