Sandlapper Society

Seewalls Merge Art with Technology

by Shandi Stevenson • photos by Jason Zwiker

Walking into Beaufort Memorial Hospital is different lately— better, according to Chris Neitert, occupational therapist and program coordinator of PATH (Partners in the Arts Toward Healing). The first thing you see as you enter the lobby is no longer a print, a television or a wall painted that instantly recognizable “hospital white.” Instead, you see a huge screen, flanked by jewel-toned oil paintings of underwater scenes, where video images of ocean plants and tropical fish glimmer and glide, their movements subtly choreographed to the strains of Mozart or Vivaldi.

The “Seewall” display, one of a growing number across the Lowcountry, is the brainchild of Olga Stamatiou and Rocco Zappia. Stamatiou, a professional artist with a degree in art therapy, creates the vivid oil paintings at the heart of each Seewall, and Zappia’s flair for technology does the rest. The paintings are scanned onto backlit film, known as Duratrans®. Some of the painted fish are brought to life with computer animation— you look at the painting, and suddenly it moves, changes, shifts subtly into real video. The images are blended with music from the South Carolina Symphony to create a unique choreographed “performance” for every Seewall. In many units, touch screens in the display make the Seewall interactive, allowing users to play educational games about the fish and plants, or find information about them.

The idea that would become the Seewall was born when Zappia and Stamatiou visited the Oceanographic Museum in Monaco. They were doing research for a completely unrelated project but, as they explored the museum’s magnificent aquariums, Zappia armed with his camera and Stamatiou with her sketchbook, they were captivated, Stamatiou remembers, by “the incredible fish and colors.” When she returned to the U.S., Stamatiou felt driven to capture them in oils. By the time she finished, she had covered a 30-foot wall with 80 painted canvasses.

“It’s funny how things just evolve of themselves,” Stamatiou remembers. As she and Zappia stood in front of her giant creation, they found themselves talking about how this expanse of color could be perfect for children. Soon they were brainstorming about some way to blend the lush images with video of real fish and plants. And what would it be like to combine the colors and the fish with music? “Color and music are healing,” Stamatiou says. “They affect you on such a cellular level.”
Still, the first Seewall might never have become a reality if the idea had not captured the imaginations of friends in the Lowcountry’s medical community. Zappia and Stamatiou, after wide-ranging travel including stints in Boston, Greece and France, had “drifted into South Carolina.” After stays in Mt. Pleasant and McClellanville, the team ended up in Beaufort. Along the way, Stamatiou  and Zappia had made friends in several fields, including medicine, and several of these were excited about the possibilities of the Seewall. They put Stamatiou and Zappia in touch with the Medical University of South Carolina, and especially with Children’s Hospital administrator John M. Sanders. Sanders immediately saw the potential in the still-evolving concept of the Seewall, and Zappia and Stamatiou credit him with a vital role in bringing it to life.

The first Seewall was installed on September 8th, 2006, in the lobby of MUSC Children’s Hospital. Two more units for MUSC followed and, since then, Seewalls have been designed not only for other hospitals, such as Beaufort Memorial, but also for an expanding range of nonprofits. By the end of this year, there will be Seewalls in Charleston-area locations including My Sister’s House (which helps victims of domestic violence), CAPA (the Child Abuse Prevention Association), the Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs, and the Dee Norton Lowcountry Children’s Center for abused children, which will unveil a new Seewall as part of celebrations marking its 20th anniversary. There are even mobile Seewall units, designed for easy transportation in ambulances.

The use of healing arts helps to reduce stress and anxiety in the healthcare setting for patients, families and caregivers. It supports the healing process and overall wellness. Healing elements include regional artwork that reflects nature, interior design, water features, landscaping, nature scenes and sounds, natural and full spectrum lighting, use of color, windows and skylights, ceiling artwork, music, privacy, family friendly spaces, and programming.

Involving patients, families and caregivers in the expressive arts such as painting, drawing, writing, poetry, music and movement activities help them to develop positive coping mechanisms to deal with issues related to changes in health and to meet the challenges of treatment and caregiving. Performances, employee art exhibits, literary arts, arts activities, horticulture and pet therapy are some examples of arts programming that can support the healing process.

Diane Young, Beaufort Memorial’s Surgical Service Concierge, appreciates the Seewall’s impact on patients and visitors alike. “It has a calming effect on almost everyone entering our lobby. The children are amazed. We have had nothing but praise. It’s absolutely awesome. The Seewall has been a wonderful gift and I am so thankful for the generosity,” she says.

Of everything she’s done in her career as a successful artist, Stamatiou says the Seewall is her “real love.”  In it, she’s found a way to share with the most vulnerable “the wonderful benefits that color can bring.” It’s hard to say where those benefits are most obvious— on the shimmering Seewall itself or on the faces of the people who see it for the first time. 

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This article is sponsored by Beaufort Memorial Hospital. 


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