Spotlight: Chrisann Brennan: The painting on the wall

Publication Date: Friday Aug 15, 1997

Spotlight: Chrisann Brennan: The painting on the wall

In a softly-lit stairwell of the Ronald McDonald House at Stanford, Jack is climbing his beanstalk to a castle floating magically in the sky.

He is part of a wall mural designed by Palo Alto artist Chrisann Brennan that, with its bright colors and detailed scene, demands a moment of pause from the passersby.

"Children always see reproductions of art," said Brennan. "They rarely see real art."

And when they are chronically ill, as is the case with the children who see her work at Ronald McDonald House and Packard Children's Hospital, they must be close to medical care at all times, often at the expense of living a normal, active life.

Brennan, through her magical, brilliant paintings of gardens and farmyards and jungles, brings the outside world a little closer to home.

"These people that are in the hospital are going through one of the most horrendous things people can go through with their children," said Brennan, who has also done murals at Los Angeles County Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

It is the details in her work that draw both children and adults into the picture--a momentary distraction from the otherwise sterile environment of hospital settings. In the farm room, a magnolia tree bursts into bloom in a corner while roses, delphiniums, poppies, primulas and pansies bloom around the bottom third of the walls. Skunks, rabbits and a whole farmyard of chickens and chicks are boldly visible about a head higher.

But the work also holds meaning for adults. It contains subtle details that only a mature observer would notice, like the Celtic knots entwined in Jack's beanstalk. "It's just magic," she said of the ancient symbolism.

"I like to build in a lot of detail because people are here for days, weeks," Brennan said.

She also wants to make the art accessible to children in an interactive way.

"I thought if children saw things the size of their hands, they'd feel more in control," Brennan said when she described the fish in the aquarium scene she painted in a residential area of Ronald McDonald House.

Brennan also designs home decorative arts like hand-painted rugs, tablecloths and runners.

While she has done murals for private residences, most of Brennan's work has been in a medical environment. Once, when she was strapped for cash, she made a deal with her dentist: He did some work on her teeth in exchange for a mural on his waiting room wall.

And she doesn't need to see the wall that she'll design for. With just its measurements, a phone and a fax, "I can do a place I've never seen and will never see," she said. She simply paints onto canvas, cuts out the design and ships it with instructions to have it mounted by a professional wallpaperer.

"The designs work well because they work for all ages."

--Elisabeth Traugott 

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