The Duality of Pain and Patients

With Bridget O’Rourke

September 19, 2020
BY Kiersten

In each of our lives, we are presented with moments of opportunity to do something beyond ourselves for a greater cause. For Bridget O’Rourke one of these moments came when her friend and Crescent Foundation co-founder and CEO, Kyle Smith, asked to commission a piece of artwork to be auctioned off for the #STRIVEfor100K Art and Clothing Auction. Working as an outreach specialist for kids at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and St. Christophers as a resource for art therapy, Bridget has come to learn about blood disorders and Sickle Cell disease through personal exposure and by forging connections with survivors themselves. I spoke with the artist about her work, dedication to Crescent’s cause, and the holistic side of art worth exploring in relation to healing in healthcare.

Kiersten Adams: I know you’ve worked with Kyle [Smith] in the past but outside of your friendship, how have you come to learn about Sickle Cell Disease? 

Bridget O’Rourke: We worked together at the Hole In The Wall Gang Camp, which is Paul Newman’s nonprofit organization. I knew about sickle cell, but I didn’t really ‘know’. I’ve heard of it, but I didn’t have much awareness. I’m a hospital outreach specialist [for kids]. Essentially I do games and art therapy with kids in and out of the hospital at the children’s hospital of Pennsylvania and St. Christopher’s. We work with kids with any sort of diagnosis, so oncology, sickle cell, neurology. I was primarily exposed to sickle cell pretty much through that job because I worked on the hematology floor. So most of my patients had sickle cell disease. That was where I was able to have a real understanding of what it was and its side effects. Also working closely with Kyle for as long as I have, I learned about it through him. It really opened my eyes and I feel like it’s not talked about that much in the medical community. 

KA: What drew you to work at a summer camp made specifically for kids with diseases? 

BR: Working so closely on the hematology floor. Each week during the summer we’re given the chance to go volunteer at the Hole in The Wall Gang Camp, I went to the sickle cell diagnoses week one summer. It was just a moving, and emotional thing for me that I did three years. My heart really latched on to these kids. I saw every day how much they suffered, and how much they needed the necessary attention I felt like they weren’t getting. In my mind when you’re not in the medical world, you don’t know about these things. Having this job and working in the kid’s hospital really helped me have a better understanding of everything. 

KA: How does pivoting to an online platform change things for healthcare, or for artists like yourself who are partnering with a healthcare organization for their launch?

BR: I think what you guys are doing in September is great because social media is such a powerhouse. I feel like it’s such an easy way for people to get attention. The avenue you guys are taking with the arts, fashion, and health, understanding the culture, and taking an artistic approach to educating people about the disease really helps peak people’s interest. 

KA: What made you want to partner with the Crescent Foundation?

BR: Working with Hole in The Wall and with the sickle cell patients motivated me to make something. When I create art it’s like, ‘what’s the purpose?’ ‘Why am I making this painting?’ ‘What am I trying to say?’ So I think the goal as an artist with anything that you make is to create work that speaks to people and reaches out to someone in some personal way. I’ve always admired artists that create work for a sense of purpose. I think art has the power to really make people look at things. So that’s why I wanted to do this, it’s something important to me. 

KA: What’s your take on the holistic aspect of healing? Essentially I want to know how you think art can heal?

BR: I’m like a strong believer in holistic mitigation. Just from personal experience, seeing how much it helps patients. Sometimes it can be like switching on a light in their mind. I think art can be a really powerful tool that helps lower blood pressure, anxiety, and mental health. My role is always hard when you’re in the hospital and I see all these doctors and nurses, sometimes I feel less important, but then I’ll talk to the nurse who says, ‘they’ve been waiting for you all day!’. The goal is always to provide some sense of comfort and use. And I think that painting really does it, not just with sickle cell but with any sort of anxiety and stress. 

KA: You’re doing a collaboration with the Crescent Foundation, tell me about how you got your start in the art world. 

BR: I’m an oil painter. I have my BFA in fine arts and I started to discover that I wanted to be an artist when I studied abroad in Italy. After I graduated from college, I did a residency where you essentially live somewhere for a month to create work. I did a residency in Vermont called the Vermont Studio Center, back in 2007. It was really cool because I was always told by my college professors before you decide if you want to go back to grad school or anything, try the residency to understand what it’s like to work on your own. I did that for the month of September and it was just really neat. It was after two years that I decided to go back to grad school. I got my MFA from Parsons and when I left New York, I found that I really wanted to go back to portraiture just because it’s cool and I felt like for a while abstracts didn’t do it for me. So then my work changed and I found working on people a lot more interesting. 

KA: What kind of piece did you have in mind when making something under these specific circumstances?

BR: I feel like with something like this, you really want to send out an important message. I knew I wanted to do a portrait, but I didn’t really know how I wanted to portray that person and what colors I was going to use. I was looking at the colors that Kyle even chose for his website and decided the palette I’m going to use is predominantly like a grayscale with only red and pink tones. In deciding what I necessarily wanted to paint, I knew I wanted to do some sort of portrait, so I started to delve into the history of portraiture,  African American culture, and different artists. I landed upon artists Elizabeth Catlett who was an African American artist and she did work cuts and printmaking. I really love her work because she did portraits in the 1950s of white sharecroppers and slavery, but she wanted to shed light on a movement. She wanted to portray the women as heroes, but also as suffering. And when I was reading about her work, I was thinking about a movement. 

KA: So you were inspired by the duality of joy and suffering?

BR: The patient would not be a hero, he’s suffering, but also showing the beauty of this person. It’s mainly based on this idea of her [Catlett’s] work. How she showed the beauty and the hope with this person, but also shed light on their suffering as they go through it. In my head, I wanted to create a portrait that was celebrating the patient as someone who is battling this disease and then shedding light on the patient as someone suffering.

KA: Have you ever participated in something like this before? The auction part, not the pivoting due to a global pandemic.

BR: I used to work a lot with the Crane Art Center in Kensington. They have a huge art auction every year to raise money. They’re a nonprofit arts organization and you can donate work each year and all the proceeds go to the Crane Arts Center. And then right after I graduated, I donated a huge painting to the ALS foundation in New York. I’ve always really enjoyed auctions because I think they’re really fun— the whole experience is thrilling.

KA: Why should others similar to your line of work freelancers, artists, individual businesses consider partnering with Crescent or health organizations? 

BR: You would never think artists would typically be looking at a health organization for anything, but this brings in a whole new audience because you’re involving the arts or you’re involving fashion. I think any sort of partnering can make raising awareness stronger, which is what a foundation that’s so young really needs. For me as an artist, I think it’s beneficial to everyone because it shows your versatility and you can make work that isn’t just for a specific audience.

A seasoned artist, Bridget lending her artistic ability is proof of her own versatility. And a testament to what artists can do when partnering with organizations that are all about social good. To learn more about Bridget and her work, follow her on Instagram.

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