Kevin O’Connor / Staff Photos
Steven Gordon, president of Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, thanks Waterbury resident Elise Braun for donating art in memory of her daughter, Susan Sebastian. Below, “Here’s Lookin’ at You” by Matthew Peake is one of more than 200 artworks given to Vermont hospitals.
The last time Vermonter Susan Sebastian was hospitalized for lifelong health problems, she fumed at the blank walls fencing her in.
“When I get out of here,” she told her mother, “I am going to sell my house to buy art for patient rooms.”
Sebastian died shortly thereafter, leaving her mother to take care of her estate.
“I didn’t forget her words,” Elise Braun recalls today, “and I did have to sell her house.”
So begins the story of the Susan Sebastian Foundation, a mother’s living memorial to her daughter that so far has placed more than 200 artworks in patient rooms in eight Vermont hospitals.
Sebastian, born in Brattleboro in 1956, grew up in Stowe and graduated from its local high school in 1975 before moving to Massachusetts and marrying her husband, Jim. The two were about to celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary when he suffered a heart attack and died in 2004, leaving her alone to fight her own series of health problems.
Sebastian’s mother, now living in Waterbury, doesn’t elaborate other than to say, “Things just went on and on.” Moving her daughter back to Vermont, she recalls the two of them sitting in hospital after hospital.
“She had lots of art in her home and many of her friends were artists,” Braun says. “It made her furious that there was art for visitors in the corridors but not in the patient rooms.”
And so when Sebastian died in 2009 at age 52, Braun shared her daughter’s wish with Williston lawyer Gilbert Myers, who helped her start the foundation. Inspired by the book “Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-Being” by Dr. Esther Sternberg, the two now browse Green Mountain galleries for original works of art and photography.
“Spring, summer and fall scenes,” Braun says. “Usually I ignore winter scenes. Vermonters see a lot of winter.”
The mother likes art made by locals that depicts nature.
“It gets you out of the room,” she says. “It makes you feel like you want to get better.”
It helps her as well.
“This has been therapeutic for me,” Braun says. “This is Susan. This is what she was about. I’m doing her work, and that makes me feel very good.”
The foundation has given art to the state’s largest and smallest hospitals (respectively, Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington and Grace Cottage Hospital in Townshend), as well as Copley Hospital in Morrisville, Gifford Medical Center in Randolph, North Country Hospital in Newport, Northwestern Medical Center in St. Albans and Porter Medical Center in Middlebury.
Brattleboro Memorial Hospital is the latest recipient, having invited Braun to unveil 27 works last Thursday, not knowing the mother gave birth to her daughter there on that exact day 58 years ago.
“I received a call from an attorney,” recalls Ellen Smith, the Brattleboro hospital’s director of development. “He said, ‘We would like to give art for patients.’ I said, ‘What?’”
Her workplace isn’t the only one to express wonder. North Country estimates it received $15,000 in paintings and photography, while Porter values its gift at $30,000.
Susan Sebastian’s mother’s goal is to give art to all of Vermont’s 14 hospitals, “as long as the money lasts.” She speaks for both patients and herself when she says, “This is an important part of the healing process.”
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