THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN CHILDREN, NATURE & ART

ADD/Autism Wellness Center, lecture space.
"The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quiet, alone with the heavens, nature and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be.”
Anne Frank

Human Needs Based Design.

Growing up in a New York City 5 flight Hell’s Kitchen walk-up had its advantages. An expedition out into the world was rare given that the return trip was so enervating. My childhood was Rapunzelesque – except that instead of waiting for a prince to rescue me I was hoping that someone would take me downstairs to the park! My career path was driven and informed by this deficit. Our adjustment to the concrete jungle may not be as complete as we imagine….. Creating spaces that include: iridescent mosaics, intricately patterned nature-inspired collages, specific color calibrations and plants, supply us with visual data that’s compatible with the expectations we carry in our DNA for a bio-identical environment. Images of a sunlit organic environment reduce our cortisol levels while increasing our serotonin production. My work in the fields of Art, Design, and Health for the past forty years has done little to reverse my childhood conclusion… it’s better outside!

I recognized during my tortured teens that art was a lifeline – creating something was the antidote to whatever purgatory one imagined

"Our adjustment to the concrete jungle may not be as complete as we imagine…Creating spaces that include: iridescent mosaics, intricately patterned nature-inspired collages, specific color calibrations and plants, supply us with visual data that’s compatible with the expectations we carry in our DNA for a bio-identical environment. Images of a sunlit organic environment reduce our cortisol levels while increasing our serotonin production."

oneself to be in. I took this experiential thesis to the streets: into the social service departments of children’s hospitals, into prisons, state institutions for the mentally handicapped and into residential facilities for emotion-ally challenged children. I was reluctant to engage art professionally because my mother was a wizard at replicating whatever she saw on paper. To this day, thousands of classy art commissions, and international acclaim notwithstanding, I still “can’t draw a straight line!” True to form, this “handicap” inspired me to create artforms that don’t exclude the participation of children and other “amateurs”. When I was in my 30’s I finally jumped out of bed one day and exclaimed, “I think I’ll do art.” My husband remarked famously: “Say what?!”

Nikko Hotel Installation
Nikko Hotel Mixed media collage

I wove my initial experiences with the disenfranchised into the structure of the company I created that produced large-scale commissioned art pieces: I formed alliances with mentally handicapped schools (at one point Neiman Marcus ordered hundreds of white canvas saguaro cacti from us and there was a steady stream of mentally and emotionally challenged workers who came to our showroom to sew thousands of twine spines into them). We developed patterns and kits that single mothers could take home and complete (mothering young children vs. earning the money to support them is a painful choice). We raided our children’s kindergarten classes and formed crews of 6-year-olds to work on pieces that were developed specifically for this age group, and worked within the public school system to identify and recruit at-risk teens for a variety of projects. We erected plaques naming the child artists at “important” installation sites (medical centers, fancy hotels, classy department stores) and conducted self-esteem affirming field trips to installation sites. Thirty of those years were spent developing product lines, environments and site-specific art installations that focused on bringing the natural world inside. Perhaps I documented the landscape around public spaces, hand tinted it, blew up the scale, dimensionalized it, and put it in conference rooms and hospitals because I empathized with the people trapped inside of them.

“Creating nature-inspired art-work while outside helps us to see, access, and internalize the life-affirming patterns (physio-logical as well as psychological) contained in the natural world.”

Oak/Paint Collage
Chaircraft Corporate Offices, Oak, collage, paint

The Wellness Equation

About 10 years ago I became fascinated by the task of learning how the body worked and wrote the book, My Garden’s Answer to the Wellness Question. At this point I met Nancy Estrada. Nancy had independently reached most of the same common sense intuitive conclusions I had, and she had a working knowledge of the body as well as a master’s degree in Public Health and accreditations in everything from Applied Kinesiology and Iridology to Cranial Sacral Therapy. I’d come up with an intuitive hypothesis (we have our own version of photosynthesis)….. and she’d explain the mechanics: we have 60 million receptors in our eyes that are there to take in sunlight in order to catalyze biochemical reactions that optimize the functioning of the body. A number of credible studies have been conducted in our high-rise hospital environments that have demonstrated the value of maintaining our connection with the outside world. Conclusion: patients who have windows in their hospital rooms recovered faster than

Outdoor Playhouse

 ADD/Autism Wellness Center, outdoor playhouse

….."the inability of children to focus their attention (due to the neurological exhaustion created by narrowing their attention to television screens and video games) can be restored in an environment that triggers a less structured form of attention and a higher degree of presence."

those without windows. Another study (the University of Tokyo, 1987) found that cancer patients who breathed outside air recovered 50% faster than those breathing indoor air. This makes sense in light of Otto Warburg’s groundbreaking work that demonstrated that cancer cells die in an oxygen-rich environment.

Playhouse Entrance
ADD/Autism Wellness Center, entrance to playhouse

At this point we founded a non-profit institute dedicated to researching world-wide contributions to the wellness equation. We fostered the exchange and dissemination of information about restorative models that have proved successful in our work and in the work of others while maintaining a private practice as wellness consultants and lifestyle coaches with clients whose challenges ranged from immune system disorders to diabetes. In the last few years the number of children we counseled with ADD, ADHD, and Autism began to escalate. We developed an effective protocol that focused on adjusting sleep patterns, detox, and nutritional repair. Since most of our sessions took place in a bamboo grove; we were in a position to collect data from parents about how much calmer and more focused their children were out of doors.

 

Dimensional garden promenade
Dimensional garden promenade

ADD / Autism Wellness Centers

We were able to synthesize everything I’d learned about art in my other life with our cumulative understanding of neuro-physiological responses. This synthesis produced our current aesthetic. We recently created a prototype for a series of wellness centers around the country where parents and children can come to be educated and counseled, and given tracks to run on when they return home. The centers have

“The intricately patterned dimen-sional, color infused approach we’ve taken to recent commissions seeks to provide enough stimulus so that the viewer’s attention is drawn away form every day concerns and directed towards their present experience.”

been designed to include the experience of contributing art to the environment. Recent installations include an important aspect of our thesis: the inability of children to focus their attention (due to the neurological exhaustion created by narrowing their attention to television screens and video games) can be restored in an environment that triggers a less structured form of attention and a higher degree of presence. William James called our attention to the important distinction between forced, directed attention and fascinated or free attention. Three-dimensional staging of recent installations is an integral part of our thesis. A UCLA color consultant asked me if she could use a slide of my work for her lectures. She’d seen a 25 foot by 25 foot lobby art piece (4000 separate strips of raw silk wrapped over a series of three-dimensional tubes) that we’d produced for the lobby of the Sheraton Grand Hotel in Los Angeles. She pointed out that because the eye registers color as light, medium and dark, putting it on a three-dimensional surface enables the viewer to register it at a more profound level. This data is especially relevant in light of recent findings that validate the effectiveness of color/light therapy in treating disease.

 

Silk
Sheraton Grand Hotel, 25’ X 25’, raw silk

Global Warming and the Indoor/Outdoor Trend

Unconventional and unique approaches to public and private outdoor spaces inspire us to spend more time outdoors – perhaps desperate times call for desperate measures and we need to be lured over the threshold into the outside world. The current trend that blurs the boundaries between the indoors and the outdoors is a step in the direction of sanity. Perhaps, we are attempting to correct the course charted by 20th century architecture (the building of boxes to hide in approach). We recently completed the design phase for a mid-century modern house that includes a floor-to-ceiling hand-tinted bamboo grove mural that begins inside and extends across the outside walls. The addition of hand-tinting elevates the forest photo murals of the 50’s into a more vibrant form than a photo facsimile of nature. Hand-tinted photos of banana plants, morning glories, or the favorite plant remembered from a client’s childhood combined with live plants results in strengthening the rapport between nature and client. We’ve always stressed collaboration in our work. We include clients together with their children in the design, hand-tinting, and collaging process.

…."We can’t protect what we can’t see or love….The current architectural trend that blurs the boundaries between the indoors and the outdoors is a step in the direction of sanity."

contemplative space
ADD/Autism Children's Wellness Center Contemplative Space

cat & window

Moving What's Inside to the Outside Vs. Authentic Culture and Context

Applying creativity to an outdoor environment by reflecting and paying tribute to the essence of the natural world helps us to see and to move into relationship with this world. We can’t protect what we can’t see or love. We get nervous when we see Landscaper Challenge episodes where backyards are “improved” with stamped concrete, outdoor kitchens, and flat screen TVs. This makes me think of a conversation I had with Frank Gehry last year about context. He made the point that designing from the life-negative vacuum that is his head has never worked out, that he tries instead to consider a building’s site – its neighbors, the sunlight, the needs of the end-user, etc. and to ask himself, “What does this building want and need to be in order to be harmonious?” I probably said something like all authentic culture, art, and architecture grows out of a response to the gift of what’s given as opposed to imposing what we want and that the art and architecture of authentic cultures are rooted in gratitude and celebration.

 

Dimensional garden wall
Dimensional garden wall, Santa Fe, 28’ X 8’ X 2’ D, mixed media
– Spanish tile, glass, tinted photos, live bougainvillea and
bird of paradise plants

Fostering Global Connectivity

One day we noticed a Mom, two little girls, and a Labrador running down the alley towards us. The Mom said that she’d always wanted to meet us because of the art we’d applied to the exterior of our house. When we invited them to see the backyard she told us she’d traveled before having children, and that the different areas reminded her of all the different countries she’d lived in…maybe she didn’t have to give up the world now that she has children, and could work with her photos and artifacts to create spaces like ours in her garden that would serve to re-enliven her love for other cultures.

“Speaking for my-self, nature-inspired creativity has kept me off the streets and off of Prozac for years!”

Right after this encounter we had a visit from a discriminating rat exterminator whose reaction to our backyard was to walk around and name all the different countries in the environment – this is Africa, this is Persia, this looks like India, etc. I said, “Have you traveled a lot?” He replied, “No…., but I watch the discovery channel a lot!”

At one point I was asked by the Greek government to design the interiors for a group of hotels. I went from island to island working with the artisans we hired. Their designs were an expression of their love for their natural surroundings. The tapestries, mosaics, and furniture were aligned with the context of their culture and environment. When I worked on an exhibition of Australian furniture designers I was impressed by the contributions of the indigenous designers – their work was connected to the natural world. I’ve translated these experiences into the installations we’re currently working on. The topography and architecture of our clients’ homes and their acculturation dictate the design program for each commission..

 

Southeast Asian dining space
Southeast Asian dining space

Alienation From Nature... At What Price?

I took every Marshall McLuhan course the New School had to offer when I was a kid in New York and came away with an intention to invent an antidote to the rampant alienation he saw developing in our country on a number of fronts. Our Exterior Design Division has been formatted to function as a liaison between our clients and nature. Separation between ourselves and the natural world is unhealthy…Doesn’t our survival as a species depend on bridging this gap? We’ve just begun the construction of a 42 foot by 6 foot art/plant wall. We’re working with Earth Cinch to construct checkerboard (30 inches by 30 inches) panels of dimensional live succulents interspersed with flat hand-tinted panels of the plants photographed and painted by the client. One day he was tinting the black

“Our theory is that focusing the attention on an aspect of nature as part of the creative process enables us to internalize the benefits of the natural world.”

 

Dimensional garden wall
Rothko residence, Palm Beach, outdoor entertaining
area mural, 18’ X 9’ photo collage, palm frond texture,
Polaroid transfer

and white photos he had taken and said out of the blue, “I never realized how much I liked plants before this.” Our theory is that focusing the attention on an aspect of nature as part of the creative process enables us to internalize the benefits of the natural world.

 

A Quick Note About Chromophobia

Someone explained to me that America’s relationship to color is tentative because of our youth and immaturity – that older cultures have developed the capacity to love color over time. Color is gratuitous – an impractical gift like flowers that makes us happy, but we’re afraid of it (the Puritans?)…. Maybe we could use an infusion of joie de vivre to take the edge off?

 

Synchronizing Our Environments to the Natural World

Forty years ago I was Olga Gueft’s assistant at Interiors Magazine. Those were the ‘more is less’ boom times. I can’t swear that I was the first person to say, “Ha! More is more, less is a bore. Actually, I’m sure I didn’t have the guts at that age to say this out loud, but I was definitely thinking it! A recurring fantasy I had at the time while walking around New York during my lunch hour was that all the skyscrapers were made of glass and filled with trees and plants and the sidewalks were glass with fish swimming around under my feet. I eventually parlayed this fantasy into a design for Faberge’s corporate offices that included lit translucent floors with layers of forest-floor pattern and color embedded in them. The intricately patterned, color infused approach we’ve taken to recent projects has to do with providing enough stimulus so that the viewer’s attention is drawn

“The intricately patterned, color-infused approach we’ve taken to recent projects has to do with providing enough stimulus so that the viewer’s attention is drawn away from everyday concerns and towards the viewer’s present experience.”

Fabric design
Fabric design for Tropitone

 

Dimensional garden wall
Dimensional/lit mixed Media headboard/screen

away from every day concerns and towards the viewer’s present experience. We’ve learned to modulate the color data in our environments in order to create a specific impact. Even though these environments are saturated with a great deal of color and design data, they manage to engage the attention without assaulting it in the way that flat areas of strong color tend to. The tranquil and sparse mid-century modern design aesthetic with its emphasis on natural materials is a positive development. However, it tends to exclude some of the pieces needed for bio-identical resonance. The inclusion of more patterned surfaces reminiscent of light-animated shadows and organic forms together with a blending of the subtlety and range of color found in nature create more restorative and nourishing environments.

 

gila monster
The Radisson Hotel, Phoenix, The Monster
Bar, 17’ L X 5’ W, collaged gila monster

The Element of Surprise/Inspiration

I’ve come to see art as an apathy antidote. Having it show up in unusual ways and places causes a momentary shift into the present. I went through a phase in Los Angeles where I designed sculptures of life-sized hand-painted animals and plants in canvas (what was I thinking?). I did a gigantic African elephant head (8 feet X 5 feet) for Neiman Marcus and used it in a series of ads – this guy put it on his head and tried to cram himself into a phone booth on Hollywood Blvd. The photographer pulled off an

“I’ve come to see art as an apathy antidote. Having it show up in unusual ways and places causes a momentary shift into the present.”

ironic shot of a woman in curlers and a hair net looking at the guy with a really bored look on her face. So we stepped it up a notch. We put a 10 foot tall standing alligator that Izod commissioned (complete with banlon T-shirt and people appliqué on the pocket) outside the door of our showroom on La Cienaga Blvd. Given the rarity of large alligator street appearances, it had the desired effect…. Passersbys came in to say that it had made them laugh, made their day, stopped them in their tracks, etc. We recently began applying art to the outside of our own home. The first time I was really aware of how odd it was to apply art to the façade of a house (when you’re following the muse rational thought can go by the wayside) was an ‘emperor’s new clothes moment’ created by a child who stopped by and said, “You know, it’s strange that you have art outside your house. Most people have their art inside their houses.” Extending art beyond the boundaries of our home could be considered a random act of generosity. Droves of people have come to our door to tell us stories about how our house gave them permission to do a variety of bizarre things like paint their kitchens chartreuse.

exterior decorating
Exterior Decorating – Residential Application

 

Transformation/Rehab - The Creativity Solution

Transforming a humble material like a concrete block, a garden trellis, or a ratty screen door into something else has empowered us and given us a reference point for personal transformation. Maybe we don’t have to run out into the marketplace and consume the latest and greatest product. At a young age, my daughter developed a new doll addiction – the high would last for a few days and then she would begin lobbying for the next doll. It turned out that engaging her in an act of creativity – making clothes for the dolls she already had - diffused the addiction. In our experience, the art/nature formula is also a natural hit in rehabilitation facilities. When people who are recovering see art interspersed with nature it draws their attention towards a world outside of their minds and helps them to revise some of their conclusions about life.

children's hospital diorama
Interactive kinetic diorama, The Children’s Hospital, Roanoke, Virginia

…."the art/nature formula is also a natural hit in rehabilitation facilities. When people who are recovering see art interspersed with nature it draws their attention towards a world outside of their minds …"

For many years I employed at-risk high school students to work on large-scale interactive, 3-dimensional dioramas that were commissioned by a series of children’s hospitals. In addition to connecting hospitalized children with the natural world of dimensionality the dioramas engage them because they’re kinetic and interactive. The children can move the dials to change the visuals – i. e., the trains move through the landscape, the doors of the house open, the bear climbs the tree, the fish revolves to reveal a frog, etc. This gives a child who may feel powerless in relationship to an illness the experience of making choices, of having an impact. The nature-inspired themes connected the teen artists to a world more compelling than drugs….not to mention the self-esteem building benefits of getting paid to make a contribution to real adult world art commissions.

Children's hospital detail
Children's hospital detail

When I was very young I worked for the College Entrance Examination Board. At one point I was accidentally put in charge of a study that examined the contributing causes of the high school drop out phenomena. I traveled around the country interviewing students and concluded that sitting in classrooms without the benefit of inter-acting with nature was largely responsible. Once I figured out that no one was going to read this study, let alone do anything about the situation, I fled the country and got a job at a Jane Eyre-type country house in England for emotionally unbalanced children. I discovered that creating large-scale murals of the countryside while outdoors had a life-altering impact on the children. A couple of them even managed to transform their reservations about living into art careers. This experience formed the basis of a model that was used in similar institutions throughout England. Creativity is on the opposite end of the spectrum of destructive, life-negative behavior or thoughts.

Southeast Asian dining space
Poolside custom furniture and mixed media wall appliqué

“The tranquil and sparse mid-century modern design aesthetic with its emphasis on natural materials is a positive development. However, it tends to exclude some of the pieces needed for bio-identical resonance. The inclusion of more patterned surfaces and organic forms together with a blending of the subtlety and range of color found in nature would create more restorative and nourishing environments.”

screens
3’ X 6” interlocking modular indoor/outdoor screens

Expanding the Membership of the Art/Design Club

Retail therapy could take on a new meaning if the general public were invited to participate in the product design process (the phenomenal Ellen DeGeneres interactive model). What if Pier 1, West Elm, or Target offered creativity workshops at their stores as well as the opportunity to contribute product to the marketplace? The voluminous scrap booking industry should serve as an indicator of how successful this approach would be. A model designed to dialogue with and include the public would double the market share of a store that introduced such a program while simultaneously putting a sizeable dent in the rehab market. In our experience creativity produces a side-effect-free rush. Creativity is the most effective antidote to addiction that we’ve discovered so far. Dr. Drew was quoted in a recent O Magazine article as saying, “Addiction in my opinion is the problem of our time.” Why not create a marketplace that welcomes the participation of our children and ourselves?

 

screens

Please feel free to contact us if you have any questions and feedback, or if you would like to recommend alliances with others working in this arena.  We’d love to hear from you.  Also please feel free to forward this to anyone you think would enjoy it. 

The Prihatin Institute recently opened our Exterior Design Division in order to support the children’s wellness centers we’re developing across the country.  If you would like to explore possibility of commissioning us to design and install a custom environment please contact us. 

The prototype we created for a series of children’s wellness centers featured in some of these pages is available.  We would like to donate it to a children’s museum, hospital, school, or park where lots of children can interact with it.  We’re currently accepting applications for its re-location.

CONTACT INFORMATION:  
SOFYA SMITH   (858) 229-1512 SOFYA@PRIHATIN.ORG
 NANCY ESTRADA
(858) 229-4167 NANCY@PRIHATIN.ORG