As Moira Bucciarelli walked through the stairwell that leads from the employee parking deck to Emory St. Joseph’s Hospital one day in December 2020, the grime and gloom of the hall stood out to her more than usual. 

 “People were just throwing masks on the steps, or gloves, and the trash cans were overflowing,” Bucciarelli said.It just had a feeling of discouragement, or frustration.”

At the time, Bucciarelli was serving in a two-year compassion-centered spiritual health fellowship with Emory. She was assigned to Winship Cancer Institute, both at Emory St. Joseph’s and Emory Johns Creek, and tasked with helping patients in need of more spiritual healing. 

“I [was] supporting patients as they receive treatments … if they’re experiencing any kind of spiritual or emotional distress,” she said. “I’m also meeting people wherever they are. If they’re having a great day, I’m there to support them in that.” 

Bucciarelli didn’t just lend her compassion to patients – she worked with staff, too. And as she walked through the stairwell that day, she thought the other St. Joseph’s employees coming and going deserved to look at more than the dingy stairwell. So, she got to thinking – what could she do to help brighten up the space? 

“What if there were murals,” she said, “something beautiful and inspiring and uplifting, that would elevate people’s moods as they came and left work?” 

Fast forward to August of this year, and with the help of a local artist and hospital staff, Bucciarelli’s idea has become reality. Three murals from Atlanta artist Alison Hamil now grace the walls of the employee parking deck – two in the stairwell, and one in the main area.

Hamil – who has been painting murals for about 10 years – has worked on pandemic-era pieces before, having painted Brookhaven’s “We Are All Together” mural along MARTA’s Gold Line tracks on Peachtree Road. Hamil said she heard about the project through a friend of hers who works at the hospital. That friend gave Hamil’s name to Bucciarelli, and things started to fall into place.

Hamil said she started with the theme of gratitude for each mural, then came up with a set of questions to ask hospital staff surrounding that theme. 

“My biggest takeaway was this sense of family and community … among the staff at the hospital,” she said. “So I decided to combine that with the theme of gratitude.”

The green mural is the most visible within the parking deck, and contains a massive sacred heart. The sacred heart is an important symbol in Roman Catholicism, and Hamil said she first got the idea to use the symbol from Bucciarelli. 

Hamil’s green mural is the most visible inside the parking deck, and portrays a green sacred heart.

“For me, the sacred heart is very connected to compassion,” Bucciarelli said. “Just to think about how huge the heart of Jesus is, and [how it] embraces everything and everyone – all the pain in the world and all the joy in the world. That’s my personal belief.”

The other two murals can be found within the stairwell, and Hamil said they can be seen as separate or as one larger piece. Both murals portray bluebirds, which Hamil said symbolize hope. 

“Bluebirds are symbolic of good luck, good news, resolution, good fortune,” she said. “Every time I’ve seen them in my own life, it’s been a confirmation of something or a sign that I’m going to receive good news.” 

In the yellow mural, a large rainbow halo can be seen encircling a bluebird. Hamil said she painted the halo in honor of her grandmother, another local, Atlanta-based artist who passed away in 2016 at St. Joseph’s. 

“That was a tribute to her,” Hamil said. “And also a way for me to say thank you to the staff for taking care of her while she was there.” 

Although Bucciarelli’s two-year fellowship at St. Joseph’s has come to an end, she said she’s been told there are more plans to continue painting around the parking decks at the hospital, provided the hospital can find funding for the projects. She said from her perspective, the reaction to the first three has been overwhelmingly positive.

Kelsey Williams, who has been a nurse at St. Joseph’s for almost six years, said the murals were a welcome surprise. She wasn’t working when the murals were painted, discovering them when she came back to work. 

“You’re going into this fairly dark stairwell, and then there’s this spot of yellow and orange, and these rainbow colors,” she said. “It was just so fun to come in, when you’re normally expecting just dark grey, and then getting this burst of color.”

Williams worked at St. Joseph’s throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and said the conditions she and her colleagues were working in became “overwhelming really fast.” She said helping the huge influx of patients who came into the hospital during the hardest months of the pandemic were emotionally heavy and physically taxing.

With cases and hospitalizations rising in the state, the pandemic is certainly not over, and hospital workers continue to put their health on the line to help others. St. Joseph’s murals may be a small act of solidarity, but Williams said the pop of color in the morning helps make the day a little brighter. 

“Right before you walk in, or even at the end of the day when you’ve been working hard all day, and that’s the last thing you see before you get in your car,” she said. “To just have this little piece of sunshine.” 

Sammie Purcell

Sammie Purcell is Associate Editor at Rough Draft Atlanta.