Jenny Lewis refers to herself as Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s “Art Janitor,” but her job is so much more than that. For 24 years, Jenny has worked to brighten up the entirety of the university’s healthcare solar system through art. Her projects touch adult and child patients, their families and friends, and the entire hospital staff both on and off campus. VUMC has opened 28 outpatient clinics this year alone in Middle Tennessee, so we’re thankful we snagged time to talk with this inspiring art enthusiast whose mission is to enliven what’s typically a stressful and trying environment. Conference rooms, classrooms, patient rooms and waiting areas … regal portraits to nature prints to crazy pug sculptures … Jenny’s on the job. We’re thrilled for you to get to know this woman and how she’s infused art into healthcare in the most impactful way. Meet Jenny Lewis, our newest FACE of the South.
What’s your title and what does your role entail for Vanderbilt?
I had to look up my official title as I affectionately refer to myself as the “art janitor.” My actual title is Associate Program Manager for VUMC Arts. I am responsible for making the medical center a less stressful environment through art and music. I purchase art for all new and renovated spaces on campus and all our off-campus regional clinics. I am also responsible for maintaining and insuring the art collection.
Is your background in art? Is this always what you wanted to do?
I have an art history degree from Tulane, but 24 years ago when I started this job at VUMC, I had no idea that the concept of healthcare arts existed. Early on in my career, you wouldn’t believe how many phone conversations I had with my parents explaining to them that I buy art for Vanderbilt Hospital, I am using my art history degree and I get benefits! Actually, I am proud to say that over the years, Vanderbilt has become one of the leaders in healthcare arts.
How do you believe art impacts the patients, students, doctors and employees at VUMC?
Art changes the environment completely. You can have this sterile, clinical space that’s newly renovated, and then the art comes in and it just warms it and makes it more comfortable. There is quite a bit of research on the healing components of art, much of which we utilize at VUMC. When I receive positive feedback from students, doctors and employees, I know that by providing an aesthetically pleasing work environment, I am fulfilling my mission. Being in a medical setting can be unnerving for patients and families. I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to see patients sitting up in bed coloring and how thankful they are to have a break from their routine or just the difference art can make in a brand new clinic space for families. My top priority is creating a welcoming and soothing environment to take some of the pressure off.
What’s been the most challenging or controversial project you’ve been tasked with to date?
I can think of quite a few, but a common challenge is distinguishing art that is appropriate in a healthcare setting as opposed to art you would purchase for your home. Art at the medical center is intentional and is designed to speak to a wide and varied audience. It’s meant to be displayed and enjoyed. Hospitals can be stressful, so patients tend to enjoy things that make them comfortable and that are familiar, so I always try to avoid art that has any level of shock value or that might evoke negative feelings towards what they’re experiencing.
There’s a lot of exciting stuff happening with the expansion of the Children’s Hospital. How are you involved?
I have been fortunate to work with a great team of administrators, development officers and architects. My primary responsibility is to provide art in the patient rooms and common spaces. The themes chosen for the most recent expansion floor are outer space and music. It’s been a blast picking out these pieces and I think it’s come together so well. It’s hard not to smile when you see possums and sloths wearing headphones and so many other fun pieces. Walking through the newly opened tenth-floor expansion gives me a sense of joy. It’s a project that means so much to me, and there is much more to come!
What’s the most rewarding part about curating art for VUMC?
Every project is different and I am often forced to be creative, which I love. Each department enjoys the part of their renovation project when they get to help pick the art. Most importantly, when I see a patient smile while they are looking at art – that’s when I know I’ve done my job. Specifically, picking out art for pediatric spaces is truly my favorite part. You can have a great sense of humor while having a major impact.
Are you an art collector and enthusiast yourself? An artist?
I love art and I especially love the pieces I have in my home. Thankfully, my husband and I have the same aesthetic taste! I am definitely NOT an artist, but if you come to our home, my husband is the first to point out a large piece in our dining room that I painted when I was ten. The story is much better if you’ve had a glass or two of wine and has a little to do with my stubborn father proclaiming that “my ten-year-old could paint that!”
Are there any current artists you’re loving right now?
We have so many great local artists and galleries. I currently have my eye on a Herb Williams couture dog sculpture (Don’t tell my husband, David!). I also love roaming in and out of galleries when we go out of town.
If you could get drinks with any artist – living or dead – who would be and one sentence on why?
Cimabue. It’s kind of a joke from a graduate-level art history class presentation and a paper gone very wrong. I’d like a chance to get my facts straight.
When someone comes to Nashville, where do you take them?
We also love taking our many out of town guests to Lower Broadway. Sharing this with “first-timers” never gets old. I also love hiking Percy Warner Park or walking the Richland Creek Greenway. We’re enjoying our new empty nest by trying to keep up with all of Nashville’s new restaurants.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?
Recently, I was struggling with something and my husband commented: “Don’t stumble over what’s already behind you”. I refer to that at least three times a week now.
Aside from family, friends and faith, what are three things you can’t live without?
My dogs, coffee and Willow Pilates Studio!
Thanks, Jenny, for allowing us a peek into your cool career and the new parts of the Children’s Hospital. Thanks to Leila Grossman of Grannis Photography for the fabulous pictures.
For the best of the South — straight to your inbox! — subscribe to our newsletter HERE!