New York Artist Brings the Beauty of Outdoors Inside UCSF

New York artist Ellen Harvey

New York artist Ellen Harvey stands by her work inside UC Hall on the UCSF Parnasssus campus.

The newest art installation at UCSF's Parnassus campus honors its longest-lived and most venerable inhabitants.

Twenty-eight paintings by noted New York artist Ellen Harvey, titled "The Forest of Parnassus," depict different trees on campus, with buildings serving as background.

Twelve pieces have been hung in the bustling hallway on the lower level of Millberry Union, near the Irving Street entrance. Another 16 works grace a large wall in University Hall, greeting visitors walking up the stairs to the first floor.

"I was very struck by the beauty of the trees," said Harvey, who added that members of the UCSF community were asked to suggest their favorites when she began the project. "I tried to find things that were kind of iconic. I know East Coast trees and I know English trees, but these trees are exotic to me."

Harvey, 44, grew up in England and now lives in a loft in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. She graduated from Harvard and received a law degree from Yale. Some of her work can be found in top museums in Europe and the United States, such as the permanent collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

"This is the first time for me in a hospital or a university," Harvey said. "I'm glad. I enjoy different audiences, and my work varies a great deal."

The paintings, all measuring 30 by 30 inches and done on aluminum to comply with UCSF fire regulations, are designed to be moved around, and they might eventually pop up elsewhere on campus. Harvey spent eight months working on them, all at the same time, and she relied on photos and drawings she'd made while visiting campus.

"It's a historical document of the campus in 2010," she said. "It’s kind of a moment in time. And it makes you think about the university as a habitat."

When she was asked to describe the most challenging part of the project, Harvey didn't hesitate. "All the leaves," she said.

One of her best-known works is the New York Beautification Project, which she immersed herself in from 1999 to 2001 to challenge conventional notions of "who gets to make public art in our society." She created small oval landscapes at 40 sites that had been tagged with graffiti, such as derelict buildings, dumpsters, abandoned cars and overpasses.

The New York Beautification Project, which is now a book as well, attracted the attention of Lynne Baer, art advisor to the UCSF Chancellor’s Committee on Art, Honors and Recognition.

"I thought, 'This artist looks at things differently,' and I just started following her," Baer said.

Seeing Trees in a Whole New Light

“The Forest of Parnassus” is the 11th work that Baer and the Chancellor’s Committee have commissioned, using discretionary funds from Chancellor Emeritus J. Michael Bishop, MD, who began the public arts program at UCSF.

Certified arborist Julie Sutton, supervisor of landscaping and grounds at UCSF, accompanied Harvey when the artist was deciding which trees to paint. The artist’s final selection included Monterey cypress, blue gum eucalyptus, Hollywood juniper, olive, magnolia, redwood, crab apple, poplar and Monterey pine.

“The paintings made me realize we have more landscape than I thought we did, and we’re greener than I thought,” Sutton said.

Harvey said only one painting, which shows the area behind the stem cell structure, does not include a building. Instead, she wanted to portray a traditional romantic landscape.

“It’s a nice place just to be,” she said.

At an October reception in University Hall, people quickly personalized the paintings and they became a repository for tales and memories.

“I was literally born and raised at UCSF,” said Adrian Sooy, daughter of the late Francis Sooy, MD, who was chancellor from 1972 to 1982.  “It is my home. I’ve worked here my whole life. I think the paintings are incredible. They really tell a story of places.”

Sooy, executive coordinator in the senior vice chancellor’s office, pointed out the stem cell structure, the chancellor’s residence, Medical Center Drive, the Ambulatory Care Center and other buildings depicted in Harvey’s paintings. Others joined in, delighting in shocks of recognition.

“I like the way the paintings dress the buildings and make them more friendly,” said Dan Ramos, DDS, PhD, a professor of oral medicine.

“I come up and down the stairs four or five times a day,” said Vicki Fay, an administrative assistant at UCSF. “How much more exponentially pleasant is this? I’m actually seeing these trees I see every day in a new light.”

Elizabeth Gress, a grant analyst in pediatric surgery at UCSF, said she grew up in the nearby Inner Sunset and always noticed the trees in the neighborhood.

“I guess I like seeing these paintings because it means somebody else is paying attention, too,” she said.

Photos by Susan Merrell