Seeing the Sound of Healing: Artist-in-Residence Rebecca Kamen

By Amy Rogers

For as long as humans have gazed into the night skies in wonder, so too have we struggled to understand the meaning of life-altering health challenges and their impact on our lives.

This spring, McColl Center for Art + Innovation Artist-in-Residence Rebecca Kamen worked with young brain injury patients to explore those layers of meaning – and others. The artist and six children have created a collaborative work titled Constellation (Tree of Life), now on display at Levine Children’s Hospital in Charlotte. 

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The nearly wall-sized installation depicts a multi-limbed tree with groupings of brightly-colored disks on each branch. But these aren’t merely a collection of pleasing hues and patterns. Kamen combined the children’s voices and employed sound visualization technology known as the cymatic process to create the components of the work.

Artist-in-residence Rebecca Kamen next to the artwork, Constellation (Tree of Life), 2017, at Levine Children’s Hospital in Charlotte (Photo by Mert Jones for McColl Center for Art + Innovation)

First, each child, along with his or her caregivers, spoke their names into a microphone at the hospital’s onsite multimedia facility, Seacrest Studios. The audio was played through an amplifier modified to hold a dish of water illuminated from above. As the water vibrated from the playback, Kamen’s collaborator Tim Chrepta photographed the patterns of the sound waves. The photos were then printed on Mylar and cut out.

Example of a cymatic photo print (Photo by Mert Jones for McColl Center for Art + Innovation)

The children chose the colors for what Kamen terms “blown air paintings”; the artist then assembled the components into her design. Each “sphere” represents a patient, with a voice as unique and individual as a fingerprint.

Creating a “blown air painting” (Photo by Ben Premeaux for McColl Center for Art + Innovation)

“A lot of these young patients have their voices forever altered due to injury, illness, or treatment,” Kamen explained at the unveiling of the work on March 14, 2017. “These kids may not be able to dream big at that moment. I wanted to create a sense that they could dream bigger, and as a group.” 

Well-known as an artist-in-residence in the neuroscience program at the National Institutes of Health, Kamen found her work taking on an unexpectedly personal dimension when her mother died not long ago, just as Kamen was embarking on a trip to Australia. Unfamiliar clusters of stars and emotions deeply affected her, and helped inspire her to work directly with patients. The longstanding partnership between McColl Center and Carolinas HealthCare System provided an ideal opportunity. 

Like the stars in the heavens millions of light years away, complex health conditions can seem unknowable. Constellation (Tree of Life) is an uplifting collaboration that invites viewers to witness the power of what is possible – and to literally “see the sound” of healing.

Amy Rogers is a Charlotte-based journalist who writes about arts, culture, and history for many media outlets.