John Safer, a noted American sculptor, still remembers how alarmed he was 15 years ago when he first noticed his vision was getting blurry.
Suffering from macular degeneration, Safer feared that he'd eventually lose his ability to produce the large-scale sculptures for which he was known. But doctors at Johns Hopkins Medicine were able to stop the deterioration and save his vision.
Now he's giving his vision back to them in the form of a 36-foot tall, 6-ton stainless-steel sculpture.
Safer is one of several artists who have donated or lent works of art to show their gratitude for medical care they received at Hopkins' Wilmer Eye Institute, which officially opened a $105 million research and surgical building yesterday. All say they wouldn't have been able to create the art they've donated without the help of Wilmer's eye specialists.
"I'm very grateful," said Safer, 87. "When you work as an artist, you need your eyesight."
Valued by the sculptor at $3.5 million, Safer's sculpture is one of the largest gifts of art ever received by the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions. It's on display in the atrium of the Robert H. and Clarice Smith Building and Maurice Bendann Surgical Pavilion, a six-story, 207,000-square-foot building that was dedicated yesterday.
Safer's sculpture, titled "Quest," is one of more than 50 original works of art that fill the halls and walls of the Smith building, making it a veritable gallery as well as the newest center of research and patient care at the Wilmer Eye Institute.
The works include 16 paintings by New York-based landscape artist and former patient Wolf Kahn and 13 oil paintings by former patient and philanthropist Clarice Smith. There are paintings by Grace Hartigan and Joseph Sheppard, donated by Baltimore businessman Alvin Myerberg; Impressionist paintings by Reynolds Beal that were donated by faculty member and alumnus Dr. Neil Bressler, who serves as chief of the Wilmer Eye Institute's Retina Division, and his father Sidney; and two dozen moth-themed paintings by Dr. John Cody, a Hopkins alumnus and descendant of William Frederick "Buffalo Bill" Cody.
The pre-operation and post-operation rooms contain panoramic photos of local scenes by David Orbock, to remind patients they are in Maryland. On the ceiling of each operating room are illuminated images of cherry blossoms, another reminder of the region.
Designed by Wilmot/Sanz of Gaithersburg and Ayers Saint Gross of Baltimore, the building at 400 N. Broadway is the first to be finished as part of Hopkins' $1 billion medical campus expansion project, slated for completion by mid-2011. Still under construction are a children's hospital and an adult hospital, both on Orleans Street between Broadway and Wolfe Street. Yesterday's ceremony, which drew luminaries ranging from billionaire financier T. Boone Pickens to Hopkins-trained eye doctors from around the globe, coincided with the 80th anniversary of Wilmer's first dedication.
The Smith building contains a first-floor surgical pavilion with six ophthalmic operating rooms that will enable Hopkins surgeons to perform 50 percent more procedures than they could before the building opened in August.
It also has five levels of research space, more than doubling the amount devoted to one of the country's largest eye-related research programs, and quadrupling the research space at Wilmer dedicated to age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness among Americans 55 and older.
Filling the building with work by visual artists who have received vision care at Hopkins was the idea of Dr. Morton Goldberg, who headed the Wilmer Eye Institute from 1989 to 2003 and who has been a driving force behind the Smith building's construction.
Goldberg said he's grateful that artists who rely so heavily on their sight have come to Hopkins for treatment and then want to display their work in the new building.
"We feel very gratified that creative people want to share their work," he said, noting that the Safer work was created specifically for the space it occupies. "It's a monumental work of art, and the atrium is a monumental space. It's a cathedral of hope and quest for knowledge. That's what Mr. Safer named his sculpture, 'Quest.' "
Goldberg said the art collection not only enhances the building but shows that people can overcome visual impairments and continue to realize their goals.
"It shows that people with visual disabilities can still see well enough to create great works of art," he said. "That has to be reassuring to people who are not artists but are concerned about their ability to function with reduced vision. ... It's uplifting to whoever sees it."
That's what Safer, who has another large work outside the Smithsonian Institution's Air and Space Museum near Dulles International Airport, said he wanted to do with his sculpture.
Its soaring form symbolizes "the unending struggle for knowledge and understanding that is the essence of research," he said. With sculpture, "you try to create a shape that will be uplifting to the human spirit. I was hoping to come up with a work of art that would be inspiring, both for the patients and the people who work there. I wanted to inspire them to feel better about themselves and the work they are trying to accomplish."