North East organ donors’ ‘Gift of Life’ honoured by Turner finalist sculptures

A poignant new sculpture work commemorating the many people who have saved lives through organ donation was unveiled today (12 October) at the Newcastle Hospitals’ Institute of Transplantation.

The artwork, created by Turner prize finalist Christine Borland, was specially commissioned to honour the act of ‘the Gift of Life’ by the donors themselves, and their families. 

Entitled ‘Positive Patterns’, the five pieces are inspired by carved wooden sculptures created by internationally renowned artist Barbara Hepworth in the 1920s. It is hoped that everyone who comes across the artwork will feel compelled to pause to reflect on the courage and humanity of organ donors and their families.

Dr Angus Vincent, consultant intensivist at Newcastle’s Royal Victoria Infirmary (RVI) and clinical lead for organ donation for the North East and Cumbria region says: “There is no greater gift to give than the gift of life. We hear many incredible stories about how transplantation saves and transforms hundreds of lives every year which is fantastic.

“Yet, transplant surgery would simply not be possible without the courageous decision organ donors and their families make, to benefit complete strangers, and often during a time of immense grief.

Dr Vincent adds: “It is the donation of organs that saves lives and we very much hope that the unveiling of these beautiful sculptures will allow us to highlight the selfless act of donation, and ultimately encourage more people to sign up to the organ donor register.”

Whilst the sensitive discussions between specialist staff and donors’ relatives around organ donation tend to take place in emergency and critical care areas where people who have been grievously injured or succumbed to a serious illness receive end of life care, it was decided that the sculptures should be permanently placed where the donated organs make their transition to a new life.

Professor Derek Manas, transplant surgeon and director of the Institute of Transplantation explains: “We chose Newcastle’s Institute of Transplantation as the home for the sculptures, as we wanted the presence of donation to be within the very building where so many lifesaving transplants take place. 

“They will offer a gentle reminder to all who work there, and the patients who have received their gift of life there, that there is no transplantation without donation – that the act of donation underpins everything we do here.”

The artist Christine Borland has worked for three years on her elegant sculptural pieces.  A nominee for the “all women” Turner Prize in 1997, Christine has focused much of her work around the concealed yet ‘essential to life’ aspects of the human body having worked closely with medical and forensic experts.

‘Positive Patterns’ comprises five sculptures with an important and meaningful ‘story’ behind each.

Christine, a Professor of Fine Art at Northumbria University explains: “With the support of the specialist transplant team in Newcastle, I was privileged to be able to meet with the families of donors, which informed the early development stages of this work. The willingness of each of the families to speak about their individual experience, however painful, touched me deeply.

“As an artist, I connected with the surprisingly visceral but tender descriptions and imaginings of interior and exterior spaces of the body which featured in many of our discussions.  In particular I was taken by how relatives described the way they processed the loss of a loved one by imagining how they have helped to save the life of another – by offering up a part of their physical being.

“It was the sense of this absent, but vital ‘other’ that became the central theme of the artwork.”

Another insight, which contributed to the development of Christine’s work, was made through talking to young doctors and medical students. Many expressed their hope that the future of organ transplantation has almost arrived in the research and scientific arena such as ‘growing’ replacement organs from patients’ own tissues, which could replace the need for organ donation altogether.

Christine explains: “Unlike the original timeless wooden Hepworth carvings, I have consciously turned to contemporary methods and materials to represent this moment in time – the early 21st Century when organ donation is all that is available to us, but on the cusp of radical change.”

Katherine Pearson, Director of Flo-Culture who managed the project says: “Positive Pattern by Christine Borland, produced for the Institute of Transplantation, is testament to a long evolving process built on trust, respect and care. The commissioner’s willingness to place their trust in the integrity of the artist to produce work of meaning and resonance was essential, as was Christine’s delicate and detailed exploration of the subject and the insights she shared.

 “Positive Pattern inspires contemplation, it speaks of reflection, of a quiet otherness, something familiar but not quite known.  Remembering the selfless generosity and humanity of organ donors and their family’s needs no prompt however, I feel Positive Pattern invites us stay longer in our thoughts.

 “It has been a great privilege to play a very small part in the process.”

 The project curator, Grainne Sweeney adds: “Making work in response to a proposition by a commissioner is always challenging for an artist. The idea of compromising the way they make work in order to meet expectations can be problematic.

 “This project began over three years ago and its duration has been absolutely critical in facilitating the making of new work by Christine that is true to her. Patience, understanding and respect, and a willingness to remain open about what the final artwork could be was key.

 “I believe that the work that’s come from this special relationship between Christine and the Institute of Transplantation is exceptional, and moving, and in every way is a fitting tribute to donors, recipients and their families. It’s been hugely rewarding to be involved.”  

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 Notes to Editors:

‘Positive Patterns’

The work is titled ‘Positive Patterns’ based on the Oxford English Dictionary definition of ‘pattern’ implying future development.

The families’ intimate descriptions led Christine to revisit Barbara Hepworth’s pastel ‘Hospital Drawings’. These portray operating theatre scenarios which represent the groundbreaking post war pioneering work of the NHS, and explore the similarities between the roles of the artist and surgeons.

The proposed work ‘Positive Pattern’ is a major, sculptural project, which develops themes directly relevant to the site and responds directly to the brief. In an elegant and straightforward way it attempts to deal with the complex, interdependencies at work in this context, including fundamental questions of life and death.

Expanded information on the research themes and background development of the work detailed above, will be available to be explored by visitors to the site in a sensitive manner which is layered, and reveals information in chunks.

The Artist Christine Borland’s note:

On the understanding that the job of the Institute is to care for organ recipients and their families, I based the development of my idea on the question of how to acknowledge an absent, invisible but vital presence.

Research to inform the development of the work concentrated most specifically on the medical journey of organ donors and their families. Each highly individual experience and the generous, intimate, descriptive portrayals by the relatives of organ donors, led me to develop the work ‘Positive Pattern’.

The sculptures are abstract shapes suspended inside museum cases, which evoke an air of waiting; perhaps for a future, as yet un-imaged function. Though unrecognisable as such, they are representations of the interior spaces of 5 carved wooden sculptures by Barbara Hepworth, one of the most important British sculptors of the 20th Century.

They were made by laser-scanning chambered interiors of original Hepworth sculptures, owned by major national and international museums. The new representations of the interior spaces invite engagement, and imagine a new identity for forms that are usually hidden or obscured from public view.

The artist wishes to thank: the Hepworth Estate; Tate London; Hirshhorn Museum and
Sculpture Garden Smithsonian Institution Washington D.C.; Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art Edinburgh and The Pier Arts Centre Stromness, for permission to scan the original Hepworth works.

Organ Transplantation in Newcastle

During the last 12 months, over 200 people in the North East received lifesaving or life changing transplants at the Freeman Hospital’s Institute of Transplantation – the only specialist centre of its kind in the UK to provide all types of organ transplantation under one roof (hearts, lungs, livers, kidneys and pancreas).

None of these operations would be possible without the extraordinarily brave decisions made by organ donors and their families – to give the Gift of Life.