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News . Feature Stories . Sculpture grad McConnell creates healing artwork for hospital

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June 30, 2014

Sculpture grad McConnell creates healing artwork for hospital

Piece commissioned by Belkins is installed at University Hospitals

Sculpture grad McConnell creates healing artwork for hospital

By Carolyn Jack

Nerve of steel.

Sculptor Chris McConnell ’12 has created one for the University Circle campus of Cleveland’s University Hospitals Case Medical Center. The massive piece, an elegant ellipse of stainless steel on a steel pedestal, is titled “Transfer” and was inspired visually by a cross-section of real neuron.

But emotionally, McConnell based his work on a great deal more than that. Diagnosed at 18 with bipolar disorder type 1, the young artist from Mesopotamia, Ohio, has discovered his gifts and an interest in neuroscience through a brave struggle that has both shaped his art and been eased by it. By expressing that experience through sculpture and publicly telling his story, he hopes he can encourage others with mental illnesses to believe that they, too, can successfully make use of their talents.

“Art has always been a very personal experience for me. So I kept it to myself,” said McConnell in a recent phone conversation. But with the University Hospitals piece, which was commissioned by CIA Board of Directors Vice Chair Fran Belkin and her husband Jules, his focus changed. It was all about “helping people and having fun,” he said.

The fun part was a long time coming for McConnell, whose story, like bipolar disorder itself, is one of ups and downs. “I used art as a kind of therapy,” McConnell recalled.

At Lakeland Community College in nearby Kirtland, Ohio, he had the encouragement of two teachers who both happened to be CIA graduates: Dan Whitely ’83 and Eddie Mitchell ’87. He credits them with keeping him interested and focused.

“Dan made art much more fun than I expected it to be,” McConnell said. “He made me draw constantly,” he added, noting that both Whitely and Mitchell guided him more like energetic sports coaches than typical professors, an approach that worked well.

It was Whitely who urged McConnell to apply to CIA and suggested he include a work of sculpture in his application portfolio.

“I went home, drove to get some clay, made a tool and depicted a knee joint” in biomedical-art style, McConnell recounts. It was his first-ever attempt at sculpture, and he liked it. Enthralled with his new art form, he threw himself into another sculptural project: a horse built of recycled 2-x-4s that ended up being 10 feet tall. End of the Commons General Store in his hometown bought the horse and also paid McConnell to create a matching buggy in reference to the surrounding Amish community. The project helped get him accepted into CIA on a scholarship.

Happy as he was with sculpture, McConnell struggled with writing and the constraints of certain art assignments, as well as his illness. But as at Lakeland, two teachers saved him: the late Charles Bergengren, a CIA liberal-arts professor who gave McConnell creative freedom, but also coached him on basic English grammar and prose structure; and English teacher Mikey Danko, who turned McConnell’s school life around by complimenting a paragraph he wrote. “From then on, I had confidence in my writing more,” said the young artist.

With course work coming more easily, McConnell began exploring sculpture in earnest, eventually creating two other large, recycled-materials pieces that won local attention. One called “The Progression,” a fish-themed work made of rebar and other junkyard stuff, was displayed at the Geauga Park District’s West Woods Nature Center and at the Greater Cleveland Aquarium, while the other, another enormous horse, was purchased by Gordon Safran and joined to a buggy to adorn the lawn of his Red Maple Inn in Burton, Ohio, a stronghold of Amish culture.

But in spite of these successes, McConnell found himself struggling once again after graduating from CIA, staggered by a stretch of bad luck in which his grandmother and Bergengren died, his dog was killed and his car was stolen.

That’s when CIA board member Fran Belkin stepped in. She and her husband Jules decided to commission an artwork from McConnell for University Hospitals, where they are donors.

“I did not know what I was getting into, believe me,” McConnell said with a laugh, but everything about the project seemed to fall into place. CIA former president and CEO David Deming ’67, also a sculptor of large public artworks, invited McConnell to use his studio, a favor for which McConnell remains deeply grateful (“That man is like a bolt of lightning going through a studio,” the young artist said); University Hospitals Art Curator Thomas Huck ’84 met with McConnell and the Belkins to discuss the project and “could see his brain flowing creatively right off the bat,” Huck said of the artist. “This was going to be a total kind of departure for him.”

Because University Hospitals seeks out art that can have a healing effect on those who experience it, McConnell’s idea of basing “Transfer” on neuroscience and what the intersection of art and science has meant to his own health fit the mission well. Though originally planned as a small indoor work, “Transfer” evolved into a 7-foot-high outdoor piece that has been sited for now in University Hospitals’ Bolwell Courtyard, at the intersection of four buildings including the Lerner Tower. Huck noted that it can be seen from inside through a window wall, and especially well from an escalator that allows viewers to rise above the sculpture for a kind of aerial view.

Perhaps the one most healed by “Transfer” will be McConnell himself. In making it, as in making all of his artworks, he was able to enter a world of his own, he said – a safe place that brought him peace and enjoyment and meaning. He hopes the sculpture will mean something to others, too, however they interpret it, he said.

So far, it’s worked on at least one other person. “I think the piece he did for the hospital is just beautiful,” said Belkin. “When I first saw it, I was stunned by the sheer size of it. And I was stunned by the emotion Chris had put into it. This was his life for six months. It was such a wonderful, wonderful experience for all of us.”

Above: Chris McConnell, Fran Belkin and "Transfer" at University Hospitals Case Medical Center.

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