Mural in SSM Health hospital tunnel brightens passage for workers

August 1, 2021


The project that SSM Health St. Mary's Hospital – Madison in Wisconsin hired artist Mike Lroy for wasn't a simple one.

The colorful mural designed by local artist Mike Lroy and painted by him and staffers at SSM Health St. Mary's Hospital – Madison in Wisconsin fills both sides of a subterranean pedestrian tunnel that connects an employee parking lot to the hospital.

The hospital, through its Mission Action Team, commissioned him to turn a 180-foot pedestrian tunnel into a work of art that would lift the spirits of staff, mirror the hospital's mission and values, pay tribute to its heritage and salute the workers who would pass by it every day. In addition, the hospital asked that the project be an interactive one with staff invited to join.

"We wanted to create this space that would be inviting and uplifting but also mirror our commitment to the local community," says Susan Leet, St. Mary's chaplain supervisor. She leads the Mission Action Team, a volunteer group that finds ways to reinforce the hospital's healing mission and values.


Leet says the high expectations for the public art piece might have been intimidating to some artists, but they weren't to Lroy. She recalls his eyes lighting up as soon as he saw the tunnel, which runs under a road and connects an employee parking lot with the hospital. "He was like, 'Wow, this is a dream come true for an artist like me.'"

Right choice
In addition to enthusiasm, Lroy checked all the other boxes that the team was looking to fill when it began its search for a mural artist. He is local. He is one of the artists who during racial justice protests last year brought color and vitality to boarded-up business windows downtown. And his designs are simple but distinct.

The mural's oak tree is inspired by the trees and garden on the grounds of SSM Health St. Mary's Hospital – Madison.

When the Mission Action Team found out that Lroy had students work on a mural at an elementary school in nearby Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, Leet says the members knew they had their artist.

For Lroy, getting input and assistance from those who will be seeing his art is a given. "A big theme that I stick with is unity," he says. "I like to incorporate as many people as possible in the process so there's always a sense of family and community. No matter what skill level, everyone can have some part in this installation."

Staffers get creative
His mural at St. Mary's includes a huge oak tree, leaf-laden vines and dozens of monarchs, a nod to the trees and butterfly garden on the hospital grounds. St. Mary's staffers were invited to work beside him to fill in the colors of the leaves and butterflies. Some of them got more ambitious, adding in their own elements, such as a bumblebee.

SSM Health St. Mary's Hospital – Madison staffers join artist Mike Lroy to color in butterflies. Lroy says having people pitch in on his projects helps create a sense of unity around the art.

"There were things that, even on the last day, were added to the piece that are perfect additions," Lroy says. "I think it turned out beyond all of our expectations."

Leet says it was fascinating to watch the mural progress. In addition to the natural elements, the work has sections with inspiring words or phrases such as "compassion," "healing mission" and "patient experience." The Mission Action Team asked that those words be part of the artwork to reflect the hospital's core values and to remind staff of the hospital's mission to care for and respect life.

Bolstering employees' well-being has been a focus for the hospital as well as for the system leadership and of particular concern given the extra burden that workers took on during the COVID-19 pandemic, Leet says.

"It's going to take a long time to recover and it's kind of like grief, you just sort of recover in stages," she says. "I think this idea of keeping staff well-being foremost in our mind is really, really important."

During the worst months of the crisis, the Mission Action Team festooned the tunnel with posters and cards sent by the community to thank the hospital's staff. The mural is a permanent replacement offering similar inspiration, Leet says.

'The world works here'
The artwork was funded through the Mission Action Team's budget and a grant from the hospital's foundation. Lroy began the artwork in late April and completed it in mid-June.

Though the tunnel mural is complete, Leet says Lroy's work at St. Mary's might not be finished. A hospital committee focused on diversity, equity and inclusion has a proposal to turn a wall just inside the hospital adjacent to the tunnel into another huge canvas. It would depict a map of the world and include the slogan "The world works here." The hospital would invite workers to somehow mark where they are from, however they define the concept.

If that installation falls into place, Leet expects others to follow. "I'm imagining that that will continue, different groups will come forward to sponsor something and we'll just keep adding until we run out of space," she says.

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