The Mass General Cancer Center's Illuminations Program uses paintings, photography, mixed-media and sculpture to help relieve the anxiety that can come with a cancer diagnosis.

When patients look at artwork on the waiting room walls of Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center, they are seeing art created with a purpose.

It wasn’t long ago that Jonathan Zuker, a painter, was in the waiting room himself with his father, who had lung cancer. As a result, he understands the anxiety that comes with a cancer diagnosis, and the restorative power of art.

“I was in those waiting rooms. I was definitely influenced by the artwork on those walls.”

“I have the perspective of seeing it from both angles,” Mr. Zuker says. “I was in those waiting rooms. I was definitely influenced by the artwork on those walls.”

As one of the artists now creating work for the Cancer Center Illuminations Program, he says, “You want to engage people in a way that gives them their own story, gives them their own insight into something. It makes it more personal for them.”

Like a Gallery Walk

The Illuminations Program, now in its 15th year, features paintings, photography, mixed-media and sculptures by professional artists. The works are rotated every four months, to move the work to different areas and to allow for new displays. About 160 works are featured in every rotation. The work is on display in several Mass General Cancer Center locations.

"Twin Light 1," by Jonathan Zuker, a painter whose work is part of the Cancer Center Illuminations Program.
“Twin Light 1,” by Jonathan Zuker, a painter whose work is part of the Cancer Center Illuminations Program.

In the near future, the program may incorporate video and other forms of digital art, according to Megan Carleton, ATR, a registered art therapist who manages the Illuminations Program.

“This is really something that I think sets us apart from other hospitals,” Ms.Carleton says. “It’s kind of like taking a walk through a gallery on Newbury Street.”

One Artist’s Journey

Mr. Zuker began painting in 2003 when his late father, Michael Zuker, was undergoing treatment for an aggressive lung cancer. An architect by education, Mr. Zuker initially painted as a means of expression. Now he has his own studio in Rockport, Mass.

A self-taught painter, Mr. Zuker describes his paintings as colorful and energetic. He paints with a loose-brush stroke, in an impressionistic style. His work on display at Mass General includes New England scenes such as fishing boats in Rockport harbor.

Artists want their work to be seen, he says, but they also want the opportunity to be a part of a community program.

“From an artists’ perspective, for those of us that aren’t in the medical profession, this is one way we can give back,” he explains.

In recognition of the endurance of the Illuminations program, an anonymous donor has agreed to match all donations up to $10,000 by the end of the year.

A Special Matching Challenge

People often connect to certain pieces of artwork in a way that is clearly visible to others around them, says Ms. Carleton. For example, many patients make repeated visits to the same waiting room, creating an opportunity to reconnect with an artwork. “They’ll choose to sit in front of a piece,” Ms. Carleton says.

The program allows artists to submit their work for consideration. The final selections are made by a review committee that includes Illuminations program coordinator Bev Therkelsen, doctors, art professionals and former patients. The selection committee has some preferences that guide its choices. For example, it stays away from images that are dark or disturbing, or images of foods that may be off-putting to some patients due to side effects of treatments.

The works reflect the perspective of a variety of artists. “We really do make an effort to reflect the diversity of the people we serve,” Ms. Carleton says.

In recognition of the endurance of the Illuminations program, an anonymous donor has agreed to match all donations up to $10,000 by the end of the year.

Artist Jonathan Zuker paints with a loose-brush stroke, in an impressionistic style.
Artist Jonathan Zuker paints with a loose-brush stroke, in an impressionistic style.

Artwork for Cancer

Mr. Zuker’s best known work is viewed on highways across the Bay State. He created the “Conquer Cancer” design for the Massachusetts license plate. Two years after his father died, Mr. Zuker and his family founded the Conquer Cancer Coalition of Massachusetts, a nonprofit that raises funds for research and family services. The sale of the license plates alone has contributed $715,000 since 2006, said Zuker, who serves as the organization’s executive director.

Mr. Zuker recalls his father’s cancer diagnosis as a turning point for him. After turning to painting as a form of release during his father’s treatment, he gradually became a full-time painter.

His father told him he wanted him to “remain positive” and through his art, Mr. Zuker says, he tries to encourage other patients and family members to do the same.

“Even if it’s not obvious, it’s one positive way of being treated at Mass General, through someone who cares about what you’re going through.”

For more information or to contribute to the Illuminations Program, please contact us