Weekender Staff

It’s an underwater world of blue where whimsy and wonder meet in a sea of brightly coloured fish, one with big lips, another sporting a bow tie. They call it the fish bowl. It’s the first thing children see on their way into the emergency department at The Hospital for Sick Children (HSC). Susy Bleasby designed the wall-and-ceiling mural to help ease children’s anxiety and fear — and contribute to their healing. “The feeling I’m trying to create with my work is fun,” says the Etobicoke artist of her first mural. “Yes, children are in hospital, yes it’s a serious thing that’s going on, but I believe there’s always room for a smile and lightheartedness.”

A sense of giving back compelled one man to donate $25,000 to the hospital through fundraisers with his company KRG Insurance Group, part of which was earmarked for the mural, as a thank you for treatment his son received in emergency. Some 50,000 children are treated in the department each year. Currently, the Hospital for Sick Children Foundation is seeking private and corporate donations for its proposal to hire Bleasby as an artist-in-residence for one year to create a series of murals in 12 specific patient care areas, each with its own theme. Bleasby’s work is intended to provide consistency to a more child-friendly and cheerful look at Sick Kids.

The artist-in-residence proposal grew out of numerous requests by hospital staff, whom Bleasby consults in her designs to brighten the institutional pink walls of their departments with her murals. “I like a big scale. A wall is like heaven to me,” she says of her “big” art. In eight-hour bursts, she painstakingly paints her characters with a one-inch square brush, adding detail and shading. Sometimes, she works while chatting with children, often in solitude wearing her Walkman late into the night or on weekends when the corridors are quiet. “I think of the pictures as snapshots. I try to put life into the characters,” she says. Fish and frogs most recently came to life in a pond theme in the hospital’s oncology department. Next, she’ll paint swimming animals in cardiology.

Children who sit on the hospital’s children’s council made a special request – a Plexiglas mural painted and mounted on the ceiling of the long, dark corridor to the operating room to make it “less scary,” Bleasby says. The murals help children deal with stress, fears and often long wait times, says Amanda English, a child life specialist in HSC’s emergency department who co-ordinated Bleasby’s work there. A patient favourite is a giant caterpillar chasing its tail on ceiling tiles in emergency. “That’s the bed where kids lie down to get their stitches, or a cast,” English explains. “You really see how kids and their parents use that mural for distraction – counting the caterpillar’s feet, playing eye spy, identifying colours.” This day smiles seem endless, as parents and children stop in the halls to gaze at Bleasby’s funny feathered birds, children gazing at the stars from tree limbs and others playing in a winter wonderland.

Bleasby lives her life with a smile. Settling on a career path didn’t come easily for the slight woman with an ease of friendliness. For years, she believed her artistic talent would blossom only into a hobby. She studied business at Queen’s University, only to find she didn’t actually have an inner accountant. She graduated from the classical animation program at the Vancouver Film School where her film Bird reflected a less-than-technically perfect “National Film Board style” rather than that of Disney, she says. Finding her passion and her calling meant literally getting out of her own way, she recalls. “It has grown on itself — my career and my work at Sick Kids (Hospital),” she explains, while sipping an herbal tea in the bright atrium of the hospital. “It’s what I do. It’s really important, I think, to enjoy what you do. “I’ve given up chasing the Bay Street dream. I’m not that kind of person. I do my own thing. It wasn’t until I stopped trying to be what I wasn’t that I said, ‘Let’s give it a go.’ It’s quite amazing to watch doors open up when it’s meant to be.”

Over nine years, her career has “taken on a life of its own” she says, largely through word of mouth. Today, she has a website ( detailing her mural work, pet portraits and ceramics. She lives, she says, by the philosophy that if you “do something with good intentions, and take pride in what you do, only good can come of it.”

Weekender photos/DENNIS HANAGAN