The Virtual Cure
By Jonathan Vatner
The role of fine art in managing pain
The pediatric oncology ward at the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore, in the Norwood section of the Bronx, is a surprisingly cheerful place. On a recent afternoon, children in hospital gowns gather in a playroom full of toys, smiling nurses pop in and out of rooms, and a visiting trio of young women in hijabs pulls a wagon full of presents for the patients.
One team of visitors from Montefiore’s Children’s Hospital Innovation Lab (known as the CHILZone) has come with a virtual reality headset to share an immersive fine art experience with some of the children. They first drop in on Anna, a 14-year-old who has been recuperating in the hospital for a month. Her room is decorated with posters from Riverdale, her favorite show, and of Demi Lovato, her favorite singer, as well as with encouraging notes from her classmates. Chemotherapy has taken her hair. A Montefiore graduate student helps position the headset over Anna’s face, and immediately she starts looking around the invented world in wonder. “I’m in a diner,” she says, turning her head as far as it will go. “It looks like Riverdale. There’s a lot of taxis outside. There’s a Con Ed truck. Two girls look like they’re gossiping in the street.” The VR headset makes her feel as if she’s inside a three-dimensional painting of nearby Fordham Road at Grand Concourse, a familiar sight for many patients, most of whom hail from the area. The immersive environment—complete with colorful street denizens, cars, and shops with intricately rendered interiors—was commissioned by Montefiore’s Fine Art Program and Collection and constructed by artist Tom Christopher and student interns from the Fine Arts department at FIT using the virtual reality painting software Google Tilt Brush. This is more than just a beautiful, innovative art project. It’s the first step in a plan to use VR artwork to reduce physical pain as well as—or better than—narcotics. Montefiore Fine Art Program and Collection. “For stroke victims to piece together memories, they need to see more abstraction, with just a hint of figuration. And you don’t want someone in a coma to awaken to a huge, glaring painting of a flower.” As she considered what type of art to hang in children’s wards, Davis noticed that the patients and their families were constantly looking at screens. “I realized no matter what I put on the wall, it couldn’t compete with the technology of our daily lives. So I started to investigate the virtual and augmented reality art worlds.” Most of the available virtual reality art showed nature scenes, “things a child from the Bronx might not relate to,” she says. “Someone from Mott Haven has probably never been camping.” She thought a nearby streetscape would be more likely to spark their imagination. In early 2017, she invited Tom Christopher to paint a lushly detailed virtual-reality landscape that patients could explore. She chose Christopher partly because he had no experience working digitally: She was curious to discover what an analog painter might do with the technology. “We wanted to see the hand of the artist in the painting,” she says. “VR should be a tool for artists, not something to replace art.” Creating a city block to scale in virtual reality would become the biggest single artwork that Christopher had ever done. For help figuring out the digital component, he called his longtime colleague Thomas McManus, associate professor of Advertising Design. In the ’90s, McManus, then an art director at TBWA Worldwide, had worked with Christopher on one of Absolut Vodka’s iconic ads. “Absolut Christopher” is a riot of impasto brushstrokes. “What do you know about virtual reality?” Christopher asked. “I was about to ask you the same thing,” McManus replied. Coincidentally, McManus had been researching VR technology and was looking for ways to build it into the curriculum. Together with James Pearce, technical manager in FIT’s IT department, he acquired two HTC Vive VR systems—each with a supercharged MSI gaming computer, headsets, controllers, and signal towers. Students and faculty in a range of departments lined up to try it out, and one of the setups is now being used in the sculpture studio as a new medium for Fine Arts students to explore. “Advertising is jumping on this technology like crazy,” McManus says. “This is big news, and it’s a big deal.” Boro Taxi watches a video screen. A plant vendor texts from a wheeled stool. A sandwich board advertises a spiritual advisor, and neon seafood signs invite passersby into a fish market. A crossing guard beckons a pedestrian while halting two cyclists. The painting invites visitors to wonder about these people and their surroundings. After two of the interns, Joseph Irizarry and Stephanie Held, graduated in late 2017, Montefiore hired them to keep working on the VR art. The other three, Amanda Conticchio, Jessica Baker, and Angela Rosado, stayed on until they graduated in 2018. Once the team finished the Fordham Road environment, the hospital approved a second grant to re-create the main conservatory at the New York Botanical Garden in VR. Again, the students sketched exhaustively and sculpted plants, visitors, and gardeners in vivid color.