When I first told my parents about my internship at the National Institute of Health, they recalled how years ago, if one needed to get from Wisconsin Avenue to Old Georgetown Road, he or she could simply cut through the NIH’s campus. In the wake of the events on September 11th, that same person cannot drive through the campus. Because it is the largest research center in the world and a faction of the United States Government, the NIH has “beefed” up its security since September 11th. Large gates surrounding the campus, security guards at every entrance, and mandatory ID badges are just par for the course. One result of these changes is the lack of art exposure to the public. Before the attacks, people could come to art shows on campus and see the pieces whenever they wanted to; now, it takes multiple checkpoints to go about the same process. The NIH has done its duty in protecting the campus and its workers, but it’s a shame that the public and art had to suffer.
Despite all the security measurements at the NIH, the artwork is as strong as ever. It is impossible to walk about the Clinical Center and not stop to look at some of the wonderful pieces that have been created by local artists. One of my favorite paintings is Bridge to Georgetown by Jane McElvany Coonce. The painting puts us in the eyes of a person in Rosslyn looking across the Potomac River towards the Francis Scott Key Bridge with the gorgeous architecture of Georgetown University in the background. We see the calm waters at dawn and I can’t help but imagine rowers getting in their morning workout. I like this paiting so much because it presents a scene that is very representative of Washington D.C. and the metropolitan area as a whole. During the day D.C. can seem like the The Little Engine That Could on steroids, a city with perpetual life that never stops moving.
At dawn, however, on the Potomac with Georgetown in your sight, D.C. becomes something entirely different. If for only a short period of time, this city actually relaxes and enjoys life. Coonce’s Bridge to Georgetown shows another side to this wonderful place, one that very few people see; and that can also be said for the NIH. Although most people never step foot on this campus, there is a host of wonders going on. From the doctors curing diseases to artwork on the walls, the NIH is like Bridge to Georgetown, a beautiful scene that shows a different side to D.C.
Continuing with the theme of representation, Cicada by Andrea Way is exactly what you might guess, a silkscreen incorporating our “love” for those infernal insects. Hatching once every 17 years, the cicadas plague the D.C. area when they’re here. Everywhere you walk, drive, and sit, you hear the crunch of their tiny bodies being squished. I don’t really care for these bugs; my favorite cicada is a dead cicada. In fact, when dipped in chocolate, cicadas become quite tasty; I’m sure Andrew Zimmern on Bizarre Foods has eaten many of them in various forms.
Never mind food, back to the silkscreen. From afar Way’s piece looks like a mass of lines and colors, but up close, you realize the time and patience required in drawing well over 150 cicada wings. For a while, I thought she actually put wings on the silkscreen. Way’s level of detail is that intense and it invites the viewer to look closer. Another remarkable characteristic of each layer is that it’s transparent. Despite there being 18 layers, you can see a wing that was drawn a few layers below the surface. Like Bridge to Georgetown, Cicada contains a little part of D.C. To those who live in ciscada-less states, the silkscreen will just be a beautiful piece of art, but to those who reside in the Washington area, it brings up memories of hot summers made even worse by these insects. Way makes a very subtle reference to the District, but it’s one that I love. Not to mention, her use of yellow hues contrasting with the blues is wonderful. The NIH strives to obtain art from local artists, and it succeeds because it has found works that connect with the viewer, fulfilling the very purpose of art itself; that connection between art and viewer makes the person more appreciative of the work, and I can say that I greatly enjoy Cicada...but I still hate the bugs.
The final piece is special because it brings me back to my more youthful years. Big Red Dog by Raya Bonardchuck is a gem. This wooden sculpture is a nice change to the otherwise delicate artwork at the NIH. What’s different about Big Red Dog is that it can be touched and even played with. Every time I walk past the dog, I wish I was just a little bit smaller and had fewer responsibilities so I could spend hours pretending to ride “man’s best friend.” The dog is great because it really caters to the younger patients, but at the same time, it reminds me that there are children here stricken with life-threatening diseases. Children want to play outside and be worry-free, not sit in a hospital getting blood work. Unfortunately, there are children at the NIH who are uncertain of their future, but Bonardchuck has created the perfect distraction for these kids. I’m sure some of them are intimidated by all of the adults and annoyed by the lack of “fun” things to do. So for one of them to walk around and suddenly see a big, climbable dog, it must be relief. If for only a short period of time, the kids can be kids and forget all of their troubles. It’s very sad the situation some of the children are in, but at the same time, I’m thankful for Bonardchuck’s piece and how it can be the best therapy for the younger patients at the NIH.
Bridges, bugs, and dogs: all simple concepts that become something entirely different when added to art. Bridge to Georgetown, Ciscada, and Big Red Dog, are three pieces that I feel present deeper meanings into the area we live in and the people around us. Coonce, Way, and Bonardchuck should be commended for their artwork and the connections it makes with the employees and patients. The NIH has a world class art collection and everyone should try to make onto campus and see the works. Yes, it may take 15 extra minutes to get through security, but it is well worth the trip. I’m glad I’ve gotten the chance to be surrounded by these pieces, and I know that others will be too.