Theresa King is a Senior Medical Scientist with the Haematology Laboratory in the Pathology Department at Connolly Hospital, Dublin 15. She is a practising visual artist and the founder of the Connolly Collective art group, which supports the enhancement of the hospital environment for patients, staff and visitors.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Theresa, can you tell me about your science background and what drew you to the healthcare sphere?
I was always divided between science and art, even as a kid in secondary school. I went to St Michael’s in Finglas. My friend and I applied to do both art and science for our Leaving Certificate but we weren’t allowed because classes were streamed back then and we were in the science class. It took a lot to convince the head nun to allow us to do both. In the end, I went towards the sciences.
I was on job sharing for 13 years and studied Process Oriented Psychology or Process Work. It brought me back to my interest in art. I did an art course with Betty Newman-Maguire, a sculptor in Carnaross. From there I got into the degree course in NCAD. I did the first year but circumstances changed and I couldn’t continue.
That first year in NCAD was fantastic, being in an environment with a wide range of ages, where anything goes, anything was possible. You could do lots of things, print, sewing, sculpture, painting, there was a whole range, it’s like an introductory year to everything.
In work I’m looking down a microscope all the time, and in St. James’s – I was there for nearly 30 years – I was staining bone marrows with chemicals that gave the most beautiful colour reactions in the cells. I always had this thing about the aesthetics of pathology. And it’s almost like you look down a microscope and you see a cell that you or I do not want to have in our body because it means something really malignant, but it looks beautiful because of the chemicals we use to visualise them. There’s a kind of guilt to that.
Clearly the pull towards art was there from a young age.
Yes. My dad influenced me a lot, he liked to experiment. He was a dental instructor and was trained in maxilla-facial technology too, so he worked with plaster and wax and ceramics, and he used to bring me into the dental hospital and show me how the plaster moulds were made. I love working with plaster.
How would you describe your practice? What do you like to explore?
I like to explore different materials. Sometimes it’s the material and how it behaves that will really draw me. My dad died this past year and my mojo is only just starting to come back. I’ve taken out the paints and the acrylic inks. I like to use materials that would be in the lab as well. For example, the end of the bottles of stain in the slide stainer, they are called Romanowsky stains, they are just the most beautiful stains. Eosin is almost fluorescent, and then giemsa gives a range of blues to violets in the cells. So, I like the materials, I like the way they interact with one another.
The artwork on the walls in Connolly Hospital is inspired by the cells I see down the microscope and the staining techniques. I couldn’t use the stains from the laboratory so I found inks that matched those colours. They were acrylic, Liquitex inks, and I just wondered how they would stain the canvas. I experimented with different techniques and material. Though my influence was from the microscopic view of blood and bone marrow cells, the works suggested the macrocosm like the solar system or nebulae. That process brought me to what is of value to me: the inside reflecting the outside and vice versa. I studied Process Work as a psychology so I’m interested in process on many levels, the very doing and playing brought me to a place that was valuable to me.
You’ve also been leading the way in terms of the arts programme that is being developed here in Connolly Hospital. What was the initial impetus for setting up Connolly Collective?
It was 2015 and we got a flyer to say that Connolly Hospital was celebrating its 60thbirthday in 2016 and did anyone have any suggestions for the celebration.  I had wanted to have an art exhibition from the first day I came here in 2007, there was virtually no art on the walls. The timing wasn’t appropriate because we hit the recession and funds were even tighter. Everything is about timing, the stars do have to align.
I put out a call to hospital staff to see if anyone was interested in an exhibition. I didn’t get a huge response. I know now there are a lot of shy artists in Connolly. I did get about four or five people; three were also in the lab – a lot of lab people are interested in art, one had retired. The people who volunteered didn’t necessarily have experience and didn’t have confidence yet in their art practice. So then I invited artists that I knew to join them, people who were very interested in this kind of environment and some of them did have personal connections to Connolly. They have been absolute rocks considering that they’re not working here and two have become volunteers in the Silverbirch residential unit where the residents are living with dementia.
The theme for the exhibition was Connolly – it could be the grounds of Connolly, the trees of Connolly, Connolly himself, the building, whatever. The support we got was phenomenal and we formed Connolly Collective after the exhibition. Without Margaret Boland, the Hospital Manager, the work couldn’t have continued. She allowed us to use the main entrance and large stairwell in the Administration Building as a gallery for the 2016 exhibition. And then, members of Blanchardstown Hospital Society [the Hospital Charity] came on board – Mick Roban and Noel Murray put the artists’ case forward and Blanchardstown Hospital Society gave us the money for the hanging rails in the 2016 Stairwell Gallery. We’re going to fill the hospital with hanging rails, so as much of the area as possible is available for art.
The artwork is receptive. We do not interact with the patients in an active way, our emphasis is on the environment. Professor Tom Walsh [Department of Surgery] has been flying the flag for us over in the hospital. He funded the first hanging system in the main hospital on level 4 and he opens the exhibitions and gives gravitas to the events and that really matters.
I believe the Slí na Slainte initiative was developed during discussions with Professor Walsh about patients’ mobility needs post-surgery.
That’s right, he wanted to get the patients out of bed and moving. So we thought this is how we’ll do it – we’ll fill the corridors with artwork, so that staff, patients and visitors will talk about it, the nurses will say it to the patients and hopefully even if a patient has to get in a wheelchair, somebody will wheel them out to see the work. We called it ‘Slí na Slainte under the roof’. Actually it’s the visitors, their loved ones, who come in and say, let’s go for a walk. And when my own dad was here, we did the same thing, and he was delighted. It really brought it closer to home for me, the value of it.
How far along are you in your mission to display artwork throughout the hospital?
The top floor was initiated by Professor Walsh. And then Blanchardstown Hospital Society gave us the funding for the next floor, and recently for many more areas throughout the hospital. The feedback from the staff has been so supportive of the whole project. Professor Walsh donated three pieces of artwork from his own collection: Norah McGuinness, Mick Fitzharris and Brett McEntagart. And the art from the 2016 ‘Connolly’ exhibition, the artists gave on permanent loan.
This year we had a photographic exhibition, a drawing exhibition, and exhibitions by two artists who live locally, Joanne McAndrew and Will Nathans. We want to bring in as many local artists as possible so we’ve advertised an open call for artists from the Fingal area.
The next thing that I’m really excited about – but it will take probably a year to pull it together – we want to put a call out to the local secondary schools and community schools. We want the transition year students who are interested in art, who have tutors who are interested, to hold an exhibition here. The students would have to decide a theme, but we do want it around health, around Connolly and their area. They would see the environment where it was going to be hung and be respectful of the fact that it’s a hospital and take all of that into account. They would also choose the pieces and we would help them to curate. We have a wall picked out for them on the ground floor. We’d love them to go through the whole process of doing that for their transition year. They’d be researching their own hospital just down the road from them. Integration is so important because the arts do it on so many levels without us even knowing it.
Because [the arts programme] has grown so organically, we now must think more structurally: what’s good for the hospital now, how can we get more hospital staff involved? And everybody’s so busy. There’s no arts office.
You have an arts committee though –
Yes, we have a volunteer arts committee – Connolly Collective. The Hospital Manager took the time to get to know us and has supported us. It would be different I suppose if there was more contact with the patients as a committee. We are working on how to support an artist residency, perhaps Fingal Arts Office or Draoícht Arts Centre could help. Our work is all done by volunteering but I know that it should be paid for. This is what I meant by us trying to get a sense of structure. It isn’t about us; it’s about having a structure in the hospital for people who are interested in the arts and interested in healing therapies and the environment, so that it will continue whether I leave or the Connolly Collective moves on.
It’s a good point. If the work isn’t embedded, it’s much easier for things to fall away if the key people move on. What other challenges have you encountered in building the arts programme here?
Connecting with all the different departments in the hospital can be challenging. The Estates Department is core to the logistics of an arts programme such as ours. Stephen Phoenix, the foreman, and his team have supported us every step of the way, and they are very busy. You can have all the ideas in the world but if you can’t hang the artwork on the walls nothing happens. So having a good relationship with your Estates Department is really important.
Issues of health and safety are significant. Working in the Laboratory gives me that insight in relation to MRSA and patients who are vulnerable to infections. For example, we can’t have bare fabric. One of our artists is a felt artist, Mette Roche, so her work goes under a Perspex cover. The good thing is that you can clean oil and acrylic paintings. If there are watercolours, you get a glass cover. We liaise with the cleaning contractors in the hospital on all of this.
Geography too, in the sense that committee members are located in different parts of the campus and some are not on Connolly grounds. Maybe when more people in the hospital start to come on board, and I’m optimistic about that, they’ll bring their expertise, time and skills and understanding around what we need.
I suppose I didn’t have other challenges because the Hospital Manager, Professor Tom Walsh and Blanchardstown Hospital Society were just so supportive and the response to new initiatives like the poetry day have been great. So perhaps the bigger challenges have yet to come!
What did people get to experience on Poetry Day?
In reception there is an enclosed area with Perspex walls, showing all the flyers for Healthy Ireland. We took that over with the Estates Officer’s permission and slotted in poems, so it was almost like a little cave of poems for people waiting there to read. Then we opened a book – if people remembered their favourite poem or a line from it, they could write it in.
Connolly Collective also put laminated poems in the coffee shop, the staff restaurant and lifts. We figured that we literally need to ‘blanket bomb’ the hospital with poems. There’s a chute system that goes from the lab into all the wards and back to get the samples here. We made A5 copies of various poems and any time the lab aide was sending a pod back through the chute, she’d just pop in a poem. We continued for the week, whoever was on-call placed a poem in the pod too. The staff were thrilled. Imagine, four o’clock in the morning, and the pod arrives back, and you open it and a little poem pops out. We also sent poems in the different languages that were represented in the hospital.
What advice would you give to someone working in an acute hospital who is interested in developing an arts programme?
It’s not something you can do alone. Consider who you would like to invite to help you because the people really matter. Who would stick with you and have ideas to bring to the table and be good with people? And then of course you must bring your ideas to the powers that be. Ours was only one idea: can we have an exhibition? But there must be something about just one thing that is like a sounding board and helps gain trust. We did give the artwork on permanent loan to the hospital, that raised interest and was genuinely appreciated. So, I suppose [start with] a ring-fenced project, something that will spark people’s interest, see what the response is like. Then get in touch with others who have done this before like Waterford Healing Arts Trust and Tallaght Hospital and listen to their experiences.
As someone straddling both worlds, what do you feel the sciences and the arts can learn from each other?
What I feel is that they’re not that different. One is culturally supported in one way, and the other is supported in another way. Experimentation and imagination, that’s something they share with one another.
Perhaps the difference is language, learning one another’s language too…
When artists want to present a project to scientists or managers, the arts community needs to know about those particular kinds of analytical tools and language that accountants and managers and scientists want fulfilled in order to be able to say yes. Because they want to say yes, nobody wants to block what they know is instinctively good. But they must tick all these boxes. Likewise, if scientists want to bring a project to an artist, we need to speak the language of art, imagination, passion, experimentation and logistics, artists have boxes to tick too. And they all need to be paid!
 Connolly Hospital was named after James Connolly, one of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising.
 Poetry Day Ireland is an initiative of Poetry Ireland and usually takes place on the last Thursday in April each year.