Atlanta Artist and Former Shepherd Center Patient Creating Artwork for Renovated Hospital Chapel
Artist Gail Foster finds adapted ways to continue painting following rehabilitation for a spinal cord injury.
When Atlanta artist Gail Foster came to Shepherd Center in November 2013 with an incomplete L-1 to L-5 spinal cord injury, she enlisted Shepherd Center art specialist Phoebe Whisnant to help transform her hospital room into a studio. Every moment she wasn’t undergoing rehabilitation, Gail sketched angels and deer, flowers and mice, human figures and portraits of visitors, and posted them on the walls.
“Dr. Anna Elmers’ team was incredible,” Gail recalls. “They realized that I had to be able to make art to give me that belief that I could go on. I was trying to figure out physically and mentally how I could work because I wouldn’t get better if I didn’t paint.”
Gail’s paintings often feature rapturous eruptions of light. They can be found in collections from Los Angeles to Paris. So it was no surprise that her room became an attraction for patients, families, nurses, therapists, doctors and staff members fascinated by her daily outpourings.
“They would come in and look around, and ask about things, and I’d say, ‘Oh, that’s not done,’” Gail says. “I stick things on the wall so I can look at them.”
What she feared, though, was that she might never be able to work on the enormous paintings that are the measure of her passion.
“Six weeks at Shepherd made all the difference,” she says. “When I got there, I wasn’t walking, I was in terrible pain and I was taking too many medications. But they get you involved in so many activities that you have to get better. And their compassion and professionalism was a knockout.”
Gail continued to exercise at Shepherd Center after completing spinal cord injury inpatient rehabilitation and the Spinal Cord Injury Day Program, and last January she began walking again.
“Out of all the people, I think they least expected me to do well,” Gail says. “I was in such pain and have low bone density, so I have to be super careful. But everyone was so helpful, and (chaplain) Ben Rose was incredible. I felt like he really cared.”
“Gail is wonderful,” Ben says. “A big part of working with her was talking about her art as her spiritual process and recognizing that what she did was to connect with the spiritual. She was pretty easy to work with for a chaplain.”
When it was decided that the hospital's chapel would be renovated and a new work of art was needed, Gail was the obvious choice to provide it.
“We wanted something that creates space for folks to reflect, and Gail is the perfect artist for that,” Ben says.
“There’s a spirituality that comes through Gail’s work that made her a natural choice for the chapel,” Phoebe says. “Her works speak to the spiritual without focusing on any religion. I think it will speak to patients of all beliefs.”
Phoebe helped reorganize Gail's studio so she could work on the painting, which is five feet wide, nearly seven feet high and features a billowing burst of light. Board member Fred V. Alias, who is donating the funds for the chapel renovation along with his sons Shaler and Andrew, also paid to have a large, movable platform built so Gail can reach even the highest parts of the canvas.
And to thank Shepherd Center for enabling her to paint again, Gail resolved to donate the painting.
“I want it to be something that comforts people,” Gail says. “There are thresholds and passages of light within the painting, and there will be angels, divine guardians and protectors, which exist at Shepherd. I’m hoping that whatever people’s pain or fear, this will give them comfort and light.”
To learn more about Gail’s artwork, visit www.studioswan.com.
Written by John Christensen
Photos Courtesy of Gail Foster
Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury, brain injury, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain, and other neuromuscular conditions. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation. In its more than four decades, Shepherd Center has grown from a six-bed rehabilitation unit to a world-renowned, 152-bed hospital that treats more than 935 inpatients, 541 day program patients and more than 7,300 outpatients each year.