Paper cranes by the thousands soothe patients at Shands

Thousands of hand-folded paper cranes created by University of Florida engineering professor Elif Akcali are on display and dedicated to the Shands Arts in Medicine program at the Criser Cancer Resource Center at the UF Shands Cancer Hospital in Gainesville.

Erica Brough/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Thursday, January 23, 2014 at 9:55 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 23, 2014 at 9:55 p.m.

Nearly 4,000 cranes hang from the ceiling of the Marshall M. and Paula P. Criser Jr. Cancer Resource Center at UF Health Shands Cancer Hospital, rotating at the ends of their strings.

Some cranes are red. Others are white. They are strung into deliberate patterns, like a cascading hexagon or a grid. At Thursday night’s reception, they filled the unoccupied space above everyone.

Visitors tipped their heads back to enjoy the nine sculptures that help comprise “Messages,” an exhibit by Elif Akcali, associate professor of industrial and systems engineering at the University of Florida, which was the inspiration for the reception.

But the cranes at the front of the room are different. Long, thin scrolls are fastened over them. Within each scroll is a message by a patient in the hospital. Akcali called this sculpture “Message in the Folds.”

The installation is in collaboration with UF Health Shands’ Arts in Medicine program, said director Tina Mullen. The program facilitates activities like art workshops or performances for patients in the hospital.

Mullen said patients will be able to see the cranes when they use the cancer resource center, which provides computers, books and classes to patients and caretakers. And anyone in the hospital will be able to see the exhibit from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday until Feb. 15.

Amy Bucciarelli, an art therapist with the program, helped collect the messages from patients and doctors. She said some messages were particularly touching.

For example, a 5-year-old girl who could not leave her bed because of her condition threw her arms in the air when asked for a contribution. Her message was “Fly with your dreams.”

“To tell them, ‘Your message is going to inspire other people,’ ” Bucciarelli said, “it gives kids in the hospital a greater sense of meaning to their experience.”

Akcali said she had been given a key to the cancer resource center when she started installing the sculptures on Jan. 2.

“But I’m not giving it back,” she said while explaining her work to the crowd. “Being with the cranes is meditative.”

Mullen said art like Akcali’s sculptures is important for patients.

“When you become critically ill, all other aspects fall away,” she said. “The focus becomes you as an ill person.”

Dylan Klempner, writer in residence for the Arts in Medicine program, agreed and said art helps people regain what can appear lost during illness.

“It allows people to access parts of themselves that are most healthy,” he said.

Akcali stood at the front of the room as she told visitors that her art was inspired by the poetry of Rumi, a Sufi mystic, as well as Islamic spirituality. But as she explained her work, her face tightened.

“I am lucky,” she said, “in the sense that I have not been hospitalized.”

Her cheeks trembled as she resisted tearing up, and then she laughed.

But she said she hopes to express a lot with only paper and string.

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