Local Art Teacher Provides Medicine for the Soul
Arlene Sullivan heads Changing Images Art Foundation, a non-profit that paints murals in hospital facilities.
- Name: Arlene Sullivan is 56, but, when asked, her answer is, “You know what? I don’t know.” The single mother of three adult children, ages 20, 24, and 26, is too involved with work, art, and community to focus on her age.
- Part of Town: In 1989, Sullivan and her family moved from Oak Ridge, NJ to Towaco to be closer to family. She lives just a few houses up from her sister.
- Career: Sullivan studied art at William Patterson University “a thousand years ago,” she said. Since then she has taught. Currently she is an art instructor at Morris Catholic High School. Art has “always, always,” been a part of her life. “I remember when I was really little, in elementary school, actually. My uncle was an artist, and he and my aunt actually gave me my first paint brush. Which I still have in my pocket. It’s all broken and everything else, but I carry it around,” she said. “They kind of got me started on that path.”
- Current Activities: In addition to teaching beginning art and graphic design on a daily basis to high school students, Sullivan founded Changing Images Art Foundation Inc. in 1997. According to the organization’s web-site, the non-profit group provides “medicine for the soul” by brightening the often “bleak” environment of hospitals, nursing homes, and shelters with murals that enliven surroundings for those living and visiting health care and other facilities. Sullivan’s motivation for founding Changing Images is very personal. “The reason for it,” she said, “our youngest son was in the hospital, two weeks old. We ended up in intensive care for two months. And the hospital was excellent, but, environment-wise it was horrible. You know when you’re really, really, nervous? You start breathing to the beeps, like, ‘I’m in control.’ And you breathe to the beeps. It’s very unnerving. And I thought, ‘Well, if we could bring in some art work, where you see a butterfly, and you think, “There was a butterfly in my garden the other day.”’ And it kind of takes you someplace else.” Armed with a paintbrush and an idea, Sullivan began enlisting the help of volunteers to create murals. “Sadly, there’s a never-ending list of people who need the work,” she added.
- How It Works: All murals are painted by volunteers and donated to the facility where it will hang. The average mural costs $700 to produce, “Because non-toxic paint is $80 per gallon and it is important that we use supplies which won’t make people sicker,” Sullivan explained. Supplies are purchased with donations made to the Changing Images Art Foundation Inc. When a facility is identified to receive a mural, Sullivan meets with administrators and patients to receive input on the subject of the mural. “We often try to bring the outside in, because many times these people don’t get to go outside,” she said. Once the art is designed, it is drawn in outline form. Then volunteers paint the mural by filling in between the lines. “This can be done in one of two ways,” Sullivan explained. “A mural can be painted offsite at a company party and then the mural gets donated to a facility, or a corporation can bring employees to a specific site for a volunteer day and they pair with the patients to paint the mural.” Sullivan finds that enlisting the help of the patients is a very liberating experience for them, because patients have no control over their day; eating and sleeping on an institutional schedule. “But the surroundings are equally as important as the medicine they are getting,” she said. “They’re like an untapped army. To give them a say in their surroundings is a really powerful thing.”
- Where the Murals Hang: Through the coordination of volunteers, ranging in age from 2 to 102, Changing Images Art Foundation has painted more than two thousand murals. They hang in children’s facilities, nursing homes, hospitals, shelters, and schools throughout the United States, Cayman Islands, Philippines, South Africa, Taiwan, Czech Republic and many other countries. Each work of art is “washable and will last indefinitely,” said Sullivan. “It’s something that provides medicine for the soul. We know it makes a real difference in people lives.” Each mural requires at least 7 hours to complete. Currently, Changing Images is painting more than 14 murals that will transform an entire pediatric unit into a children’s book. “So, when children walk through the double doors into the unit they are walking from page to page to page.” The kids can touch it and read it. “The art work makes the hospital experience better,” Sullivan said.
- Most Memorable Moment: Periodically Sullivan sends letters to celebrities asking them to sign a mural. Several years ago George and Barbara Bush agreed to autograph a mural for a hospital in Texas. Young volunteers, who were patients in the Pediatric Oncology unit at Morristown Memorial Hospital, painted the mural. One little 6 year-old girl, who was in isolation, caught Sullivan’s eye, “because she was all alone.” That little girl helped Sullivan complete the mural. Ten years later, the girl’s mother asked Sullivan to paint a mural for Newton Medical Center in her daughter’s memory. Sullivan once again wrote to George and Barbara Bush and explained the connection between the two murals. The former president and his wife agreed to once again autograph a mural.
- Other Activities: From 2003 until 2006, Sullivan served on the Montville Board of Education. “That was enough,” joked the former BOE member. Sullivan said she ran for the elected office because, “I am a teacher and I just think that you need a perspective from a teacher’s point of view.”
- Favorite Thing About Montville: “I like the close knitted part, you know? When you go to the store you know people and people know you. It’s almost like Mayberry,” said Sullivan.
- Something You Would Change: “The politics. It’s terrible. It gets in the way of doing really good things in the community,” said Sullivan.
- Hobbies: “I don’t really have time for hobbies,” Sullivan said. However, when she does find herself with a moment, she likes to work outside in her yard. “I love this time of year when everything is green and neat. It’s just, it’s perfect.” She also enjoys reading, especially science fiction. “Other than that I am either teaching, or painting, or looking for places to paint, and ways to fund the painting.” She is always looking for funding and volunteers. Through Changing Images Art Foundation Inc., Sullivan hopes to “make things more beautiful for people who are in that experience” of waiting at the hospital. She wishes she could let everyone know how much the brightly colored murals mean to patients and shut-ins in facilities around the world.
- Philosophy: Sullivan credits the 1990’s TV show, Touched by an Angel, as the source of her philosophy, “I just think, life is a beautiful tapestry and we are all connected through invisible threads t0 create this tapestry. And I do believe that, if somehow I help you, and you in turn help somebody else, and they help somebody else, and so on, this could be such a great place. The whole world could be a great place if everybody else just reached out a little bit and thought about everybody else.”