When Tilda Shalof first began collecting bits of plastic from the hospital, she knew they would one day become part of a bigger story. The only question was: how?
As an intensive care nurse at Toronto General Hospital for nearly 30 years, writing was always Shalof’s primary outlet, a way to ease the stresses that come with such an emotionally demanding job. With time, this penchant for storytelling led her to pen six nonfiction books about nursing and become an in-demand speaker with engagements around the world.
Despite her remarkable success however, she continued collecting. Multicoloured medicine caps and tube connectors, vial lids and syringe coverings, all left over from some of the sickest patients in her hospital.
It wasn’t until brunch with long-time friend and visual artist, Vanessa Herman-Landau, though that the story started finding its shape: a massive mural made of discarded medical plastic.
We spoke with Shalof and Herman-Landau about the idea behind the mural, the work involved, and the books that inspire them to create. Over hundreds of hours, the two would create a colourful mosaic of more than 10,000 pieces embedded in see-through resin in Herman-Landau’s home studio. The piece, which measures 1.2 metres (4 feet) high and 2.43 metres (8 feet) long, now hangs in the halls of Toronto General, the very hospital where Shalof worked for 28 years.
Why did you start collecting these bits of plastic?
TS (Tilda Shalof): Around 30 years ago, when I started working in the Medical Intensive Care Unit at Toronto General Hospital, these colourful bits of plastic that I was using for patient care and then and throwing away, caught my eye. I developed a habit of keeping them as I felt an attachment to them. They began to represent for me the many patients I had cared for in the ICU and seen through some difficult times. Also, I just liked how they looked, cheerful and purposeful. Fast forward 28 years and thousands of patients later, I had huge plastic bags filled with these bits and pieces. I guess I’m a hoarder, but what I hoard is memories.
Where did the idea for the mural come from?
VHL (Vanessa Herman-Landau): Tilda was planning to retire from Toronto General Hospital and she wanted to leave something behind. She wanted to give a gift to the staff and patients she had worked with for so many years. I knew from the moment she showed me her stash of plastic it was possible to make her vision a reality.
We talked about it quite a bit and then decided to buy the wooden support and begin. The design grew organically from the central mandala. While it was originally planned as an abstract work, once the interacting figures were added the scene came alive. We added and then removed bits, layered plastic and just played with the materials.
How long did it take to create the piece? What barriers did you have to overcome to bring your idea to life?
TS: The main barrier for me was the barrier that most artists face: believing in one’s vision and accepting that I was spending so much time on a project that might not turn out successfully.
VHL: I’ve calculated that the entire work took approximately 325 hours each.
What story did you want the work to tell?
TS: For me, it is the story of my patient care. For other nurses and doctors, too, I hope it will remind them of the importance of all the many acts of skilled care that we perform on a daily and nightly basis and how it all adds up to something significant. For patients and the public, I hope that viewing the mural is an uplifting and joyful experience that takes their mind into whimsy, imagination, and possibilities.
What has been the reaction so far to your work?
TS: Overwhelmingly positive. Almost 5 million Facebook views and thousands of comments – all positive. Many are from nurses who feel their work is represented and honoured. Many are from patients moved by the story. People who have lost a loved one to critical illness feel that their person is immortalized in it – quite an amazing reaction, but I hear it a lot.
Where do you find your inspiration to create?
VHL: The small plastic pieces were so colourful and of such varied and elegant design that they inspired us to play with their groupings and placement until they created the effects we were after. Tilda can speak more to the relationships between cells dividing, figures connecting, light and dark and the suggestion of spirituality in the work, but I am very drawn to mandalas in general and am pleased we could find a place for them in the piece.
Where does your love of storytelling come from?
TS: I grew up in a book saturated home. When there weren’t enough bookshelves, then counter tops, refrigerator shelves, staircases, piano bench, held the books. We had books, read books, discussed books, and lived books. I can honestly say books saved my life, many times over. But that’s books and you asked me about stories and of course stories can take many forms, but for me, it all started with the book.
What role has reading played in your life? What are a few books that have made you who you are?
TS: Very hard question! Pippi Longstocking for her chutzpah, Harriet the Spy for her stealth, Charlotte’s Web for her friendship to Wilbur the Pig, Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch to understand how joy can be found in adversity, and … Shall I go on?
VHL: I love to read and the stories stay with me. Most of my art is very narrative. Some of my drawings and prints come right from the images I envisioned in my reading. One that comes to mind is an etching I made based on a scene in Gunter Gras’s The Tin Drum. It’s at the beginning of the book where the old grandmother sits in a foggy field making potatoes over an open fire. I have used images from many Leonard Cohen poems for my drawings and paintings. Reading has been both educational and an opportunity to inhabit the lives of others. I’m not much of a traveler, but books allow me to visit different worlds.
What are you currently reading?
TS: Memoirs about Africa and Holocaust testimonies, a cookbook of Alice B. Toklas, The New Yorker, Kelly Cutrone, My Korean Deli, Shot in the Heart by Mikal Gilmore, and I hear there’s a new Natalie Goldberg that I just must have. There are books that I buy, books that I read on an electronic device, books that I have and must pass on, and other books that I read just to find certain sentences, ideas, or words and then I cut them out and put them into a scrapbook.
What, if anything, does writing and creating visual art have in common? What does appreciating or enjoying books and art have common?
TS: Story and that doing these things is so much fun – especially when you can do them with a friend like Vanessa who can help you realize your vision.
VHL: Both writing and visual art require the use of imagination and the desire to connect with others. It’s a way of getting into someone else's skin and seeing the world through their eyes. Both have the capacity to be beautiful, disturbing, sublime and expressive. Both can be ‘read’ at different levels.