At new St. Mary's of Duluth campus, decor pays homage to region's diversity, history

September 15, 2023

A committee helped curate art for the new Essentia Health — St. Mary's Medical Center in Duluth, Minnesota. Among the pieces on display is a towering green wall in the lobby made of dehydrated plants and shaped to resemble a map of the local Apostle Islands.


In addition to being equipped with a physical plant and technology to carry it into the future, the new Essentia Health — St. Mary's Medical Center in Duluth, Minnesota, is accented with artwork that reflects its surroundings and history.

Some of the 100 selected pieces at Essentia's St. Mary's were made by local Native American artists or pay homage to indigenous culture. Minneapolis artist Gordon Coons created acrylic art titled "Man Transferring into Healer (Makwa).

The hospital was rebuilt in a $900 millionconstruction project, which Essentia leadership dubbed "Vision Northland." St. Mary's is the flagship for Essentia and one of five Catholic hospitals within the 14-hospital system.

An Essentia interior design committee worked closely with Essentia leadership, an art consultant, and Vision Northland's architectural firm to commission new installations, invite local artists to produce pieces, and select artwork from the legacy campus.

"We strived to create a diverse collection so there will be something here for everyone to enjoy," says Laura Pfenninger, Essentia project manager.

232 patients in 6.5 hours
A group of Benedictine Sisters who arrived in Duluth at the request of civic and church leaders in 1881 established St. Mary's Hospital in 1888. The campus changed greatly over the years through replacements and expansions but remained at that site. Four years ago, St. Mary's broke ground on land next to its legacy campus for the new site.

The 942,000-square-foot building that opened July 30 has 344 private patient rooms, each with an expansive view of Lake Superior or Duluth's hillsides. The new hospital has 16 operating rooms, a children's hospital, a heart and vascular center and an emergency department.

Essentia board member and former St. Mary's CEO Sr. Kathleen Hofer, OSB, says on opening day patient care crews helped transfer 232 patients in 6.5 hours from the legacy to the replacement campus.

Personal connections
Pfenninger says the design decision-makers wanted to use visual cues in the art and design to evoke the region's roots, history, beautiful surroundings, people and St. Mary's long-standing connection to the community.

The outdoor metallic sculpture called "The Healing Waters of Gitchi Gamig" by Sara Balbin of Drummond, Wisconsin, is outside the main entrance of Essentia's St. Mary's.

They accomplished this in many ways.

In 2021, they put out a call for local and regional artists to create fine art of various types to adorn the new facility's walls. About 250 artists from Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota responded.

Some of the 100 selected pieces were made by local Native American artists or pay homage to indigenous culture. For instance, artist Rabbett Strickland created art related to the creation story promulgated by the Ojibwe Native American people. Artist Leah Yellowbird, who has Algonquin-Metis and Anishinaabe Native American heritage, used antique beading and items from nature to make her works.

The designers also put out a call for an artist to create an outdoor sculpture for the hospital's main entrance. The chosen artist, Sara Balbin of Drummond, Wisconsin, created a silver metal sculpture called "The Healing Waters of Gitchi Gamig" that Balbin says in a press release evokes the grace, beauty and power of Lake Superior "while symbolizing healing properties." Balbin was diagnosed in 2021 with breast cancer and received most of her treatment at Essentia facilities. She dedicated the sculpture she created to the kindness and patience of the Essentia staff who treated her illness.

Moss and lichens
The internal design committee provided direction to Vision Northland's architecture firm on Duluth-area attractions and sites to photograph for use as themes for each patient floor, as well as for wall art in the hospital concourse.

Patient floor themes incorporate photos from several natural areas in the region, including Jay Cooke State Park, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Gooseberry Falls and the Apostle Islands. St. Mary's birth department includes photographs of sunrises, Lake Superior beaches and rock cairns. The pediatrics department includes images of local moose, deer and other wildlife. The emergency department includes photos taken in birch forests.

In the cafeteria and in other areas of the hospital is artwork inspired by the local Native American community's heritage, including mosaics that call to mind the art of basket weaving and ceilings with artwork in the shape of canoes.

Two large-scale green walls that St. Mary's commissioned are made of dehydrated native plants including moss and lichen. One of the green walls stretches from floor to ceiling in a multistory entryway. That green wall was created to resemble a map of the local Apostle Islands.

Benedictine heritage
The design committee also partnered with Essentia mission department members and with St. Mary's sponsor, the Benedictine Sisters of St. Scholastica Monastery, to ensure the correct selection, transport and placement of religious art and artifacts.

Many items were brought over from the legacy campus or the sisters' nearby monastery, including religious statues, the stations of the cross images and a medallion depicting Mary and Jesus. The sisters consulted with the hospital on the placement of a tabernacle and a historic hand-carved crucifix and they donated a new, stained-glass window depicting St. Benedict and his sister St. Scholastica embracing.

Pfenninger says, "People come here not necessarily in the best of times — they or their loved one may be sick. They may need to pause, step away and take their mind off their situation. We wanted the views and the artwork to help create a calming, welcoming place for them."

» Take a video tour of the replacement hospital 

» View a selection of the unique pieces curated by an art committee for the replacement hospital in Duluth, Minnesota



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