Navin Hyder works in her studio at the Mater Hospital, September 2019

Navin Hyder

Navin Hyder reflects on her three-year artist residency at the Mater Misericordiae University Hospital in Dublin, where she created a large body of work in the hospital’s operating theatres. Hyder details the evolving nature of the residency, new terrain for both artist and hospital staff, and how personal connections with families impacted by cancer shaped its outcomes.

The artist’s residency at the Mater Misericordiae University Hospital was a pilot programme initiated in September 2019 with no established roles and no planned outcomes. However, the people behind the residency pushed on despite the odds against them, and over three years it came to incorporate functional roles, withstood the Covid-19 pandemic, and was ultimately very successful in its outcomes.

To understand how this was possible, we could begin with Debbie Killeen, Project Manager at the UCD Centre for Precision Surgery in the Mater where my residency was based… How the cover illustration of Henry Marsh’s ‘Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery’ by an artist-in-residence at a hospital piqued her curiosity[1], or the BBC podcast she was listening to about a surgeon working with a lacemaker[2], who would make delicate pieces based on various tissues she witnessed in the operating theatre.

Next, we could talk about Prof. Ronan Cahill, the brainchild behind the residency, and his interest in art. A Consultant at the Mater and Professor of Surgery in UCD, he recalls a patient presenting him with an artwork about the operation that he had performed on him. We can also refer to my own interest in medical anatomy, which often accompanies any artist working from life. However, these fragments are merely a prelude to the residency and did not shape the course it would take.

I was the Mater’s very first artist-in-residence, and to facilitate my contact with the hospital departments Debbie Killeen unofficially became the residency coordinator. Her project management role meant that she, like me, was not a medic, yet she had the experience of working with the hospital’s staff and was aware of the responsibilities and etiquette such a space demanded. This enabled me to talk to her without inhibition, sharing ideas and receiving her guidance on how to navigate through and work in this new environment.

I remember two months into the residency, I was struck by a deep desire to be a part of theatre. Having observed a few surgical procedures, I was not content being a silent spectator on the side. I was also feeling disconnected from the sources of inspiration in the solitude of my studio space, a temporarily unused room in the original building of the hospital, under the old theatres. After much thought, a solution came to me. The only way to be part of theatre was if I were the patient! Luckily, I had a small hernia; perhaps I could get it removed and make work around the procedure? Debbie laughed when I suggested this, saying that she didn’t think that one could just book oneself in for an elective procedure.

Looking back upon this point early in the residency, I can see how disconnected I was from the emotional impact of disease and surgery. When I initially started working at the Mater, my focus had been on cancer, cancer surgery and the resected cancerous specimens that I had the privilege to photograph. I fell in love with their deep, warm tones and glistening forms and, referencing Yeats, referred to them as ‘Terrible Beauty’.[3] To me, when they were freshly resected, while the cells were still alive, they had this haunting beauty – haunting because of the dangers and horror of what they represented.

On the Wings of the Butterfly, Digital painting 2019-2021

In December 2019, while continuing to paint these specimens, I simultaneously started drawing live procedures in the operating theatres. The intention was to make 100 drawings and create a narrative about this theatre experience, potentially a graphic novel. I only drew while the procedure was underway, and then stopped when it ended. Each drawing truly belongs only to that specific, shared, time and place.

As I continued to frequent the operating theatres and draw, these visits expanded my understanding of the procedures, the theatre staff, and the inner workings of the hospital. Observing from a distance, some parts of it had seemed strange: the lively conversations, the music in the background while working on serious cancer cases. Then I realised this: the positivity in the room came from the staff knowing they could make an intervention, that the procedure would either extend the patient’s life, improve the quality of their life, or even cure them altogether.

Just a few months later, the pandemic disrupted everyone’s lives. The hospital became a restricted space, and during the first lockdown, my focus returned to the photographed specimens. One might imagine that this disruption would negatively impact the residency’s outcomes. Though I eventually returned to theatre to draw (once I was vaccinated), how could the residency continue in quite the same manner as it had?

Events unfolded that were crucial for directing this residency to its eventual conclusions. First, the mother of a close friend in Pakistan was diagnosed with rectal cancer, coincidentally on a day when I was drawing a rectal cancer operation. This brought an element of intimacy to the operation that had been absent before. Then Debbie’s father was diagnosed with a similar cancer. And, having met the patient and holding a connection with the patient’s family, I was present to draw his procedure.

My personal connection with these families, in the midst of a residency based solely on cancer, heightened my awareness of the human impact of the disease. Now, I could also compare two patients who had very different reactions to their prognosis; and I received profound insights into how it affected them respectively.

I deeply felt the heavy impact of a cancer diagnosis: ‘Memento mori’. This term recurs many times in art history and always sounded so beautiful. Now, in the hospital it held a sinister meaning.

These experiences helped me understand that even for artists there is an ethical responsibility towards a patient. When we choose to create work in a hospital, we must take into account the power of artworks to shape the mood of the vulnerable and to encourage healing. We need to recognise that not all art or artmaking can or should be allowed to exist within places that are meant to be safe spaces for the sick and vulnerable.

Public art installation, main facade of the Mater Hospital, September 2021

With these findings, I chose to put aside my specimen and cadaver paintings and focus on patient sensitive work, i.e. the theatre drawings. These are not patient-centred – and art produced in a hospital need not be. They are focused on a most beautiful aspect of surgery: the dedication of an entire team to supporting the patient’s care and recovery. These drawings are a testament to the fact that patients are not alone in this journey.

This series of works became ‘Memento Vivere’- remember to live. Installed across the facade of the hospital building they made manifest how my friend described a hospital: As ‘a repository of hope’.

[1] Brainscape 18 is an etching from a drawing by Susan Aldworth, who was Artist in Residence at the Royal London Hospital from 2005 to 2008. It was drawn in the neuroradiology suite of a patient undergoing a brain scan, a cerebral angiogram, to locate an aneurysm in their brain. The cover artwork can be seen at For the story behind the artwork see

[2] BBC Radio 3 Podcast ‘Private Passions’ with Surgeon Roger Kneebone:

[3] From the poem ‘Easter, 1916’ by William Butler Yeats:


Navin Hyder is a visual artist who is keenly interested in the inclusion of the arts within hospitals and other healthcare settings. She holds a B.F.A from Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, Pakistan. In 2019, she became the first artist-in-residence at Mater Misericordiae University Hospital, Dublin. Here she spent three years working—through the pandemic— researching and experimenting to find the most relevant directions and approaches within such a niche space. The result was a large-scale public art installation for Culture Night 2021. The website is an archive of the residency.


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