When designing the wall mural that spans two floors of Penn Medicine’s new Pavilion, Philadelphia-based artist Odili Donald Odita aimed to transport viewers from the insides of a hospital — where they may be going through a stressful time — to a vivid, outdoor scene.
“I wanted to create an exterior space within an interior — to give the idea of being portaled to the outside,” Odita says of the mural titled “Field and Sky.”
The abstract painter achieved this vision, not by painting literal images of mountains, birds, and sunsets, but instead through the creation of a kaleidoscope of brightly-colored geometric shapes, which mirror the complexity of the world around us, according to Odita. “Each shape creates an individual landscape,” he says.
Born in Nigeria and raised in the American Midwest, Odita’s art regularly combines aspects of Western modernity with African culture. He has lived in Philadelphia since 2006 and is a professor at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art and Architecture. A wall mural by Odita is also on display in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where it was originally part of the “New Grit: Art and Philly Now” exhibit that featured 25 of the city’s key creators this past summer.
“Field and Sky” welcomes visitors who enter on the lobby floor of the Pavilion, along with the striking art installation designed by renowned artist and designer Maya Lin. Both works embody the health system’s mission to create a calming and healing environment for Pavilion patients and visitors through art.
At 50 feet long and roughly 20 feet high, Odita’s mural stretches behind the lobby escalator and leads you up to the building’s first floor, where it extends across a 127-foot wall.
I asked Odita four questions about the space, his art, and his inspiration.
Tell me about the mural you’ve created for the new Pavilion. Where did the idea for the artwork and its title come from?
The approach was for me to consider the space and see what I could find of value in the architecture and what it’s been designed for. In this case, since the space is a hospital serving patients and visitors, I wanted to create a mural that would give the viewer a view, a space to contemplate, one that’s separate — and bigger — from the space that they’re actually in.
The colors are rich and bright and are associated with nature, to generate the idea of being in different stages of daylight. If you can imagine taking a walk in late spring, early summer — it’s color like that.
The title “Field and Sky” comes from what I was seeing in the structured pattern of the painting and the ways the lines separate the colors. I was seeing some aspects of the color as if it was ground, and other aspects of the color as if it was atmosphere — so landscapes and horizons. I liked the effect of the multiple color spaces and appreciated how this could be understood by different people as they moved through the work.
How did you create this piece?
I first draw on graph paper. I do a lot of different designs and drawings to get a sense of what it could be. Then I make those drawings relative to scale. I’m starting with an 8.5x11 paper, but I’m drawing to the scale of the space, so I can match what I have on the paper to the wall. Then we do the translation with ratios between the graph paper and the wall to get proportions correct. There is a preliminary drawing done digitally, so that we can get close to what the wall will look like. And then it’s drawing with blue lines and pencil on the wall, and then filling the shapes with the color.
Does the city of Philadelphia influence your art?
Absolutely. I really love Philadelphia. It’s a city with so much history — and I think it’s got this kind of history that’s underserved, unrecognized. But people who know about Philly, they can appreciate the wealth of the city and what it can offer. It’s a poor city, but it’s a grand city, for its place in American history. Not just revolutionary history, but I’m talking culturally — from music and sports to art and architecture.
What is it about creating art in a public space that excites you?
The idea of the wall painting being for or of the people, that’s an important part of the work. I like how people interact with murals more freely than with canvas work. In a hospital, you’re concerned with your own health or the health of your loved ones, and I wanted to create art that would give people the space to be transported somewhere else for a moment, and then brought back refreshed and recharged with more positive energy in their present circumstance.