04/13/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT
AT ATLANTA'S SHEPHERD CENTER hospital, 16-year-old Maranda Daniels daubs blue paint on a canvas with a brush gripped firmly in her teeth. John Feight, founder and executive director of the Foundation for Hospital Art, patiently adjusts the canvas so the freckle-faced teenager can color the water around a school of whimsical fish. Daniels, who was paralyzed from the neck down last September in a fall from a bridge, paints doggedly, a bit surprised by her skill. "I didn't think I'd be able to do it," she says of the finished product. "It looked hard. But when I got to doing it, it was easy."
Feight, 58, might say the same about his own chosen line of work. In 1984, the part-time artist and father of two quit a successful advertising career to establish the small, nonprofit foundation. Its goal: to give seriously ill or injured hospital patients of all ages the chance to paint, and with it, Feight believes, a chance to heal. Recovery "is mental, not just physical," he says. Believing in art's curative power, he adds, is as easy as "believing in aspirin."
The foundation's achievements belie its paltry $220,000 budget, most of it from corporations such as Coca-Cola Co. and Pharmacia & Upjohn. In a basement in Feight's Roswell, Ga., home, he and two paid coworkers draw outlines on canvases for patients to fill in. Completed murals are hung on hospital walls or are shipped off to spruce up another hospital. Over the years, Feight and thousands of volunteers have donated more than 15,000 artworks to some 500 hospitals in 165 countries. Feight usually directs painting sessions, guiding patients as they bring to life flowers, birds and his signature butterflies—which he says "represent happiness and freedom."
Sometimes the sickest patients seem to appreciate the art therapy the most. Dr. Donald Peck Leslie, a rehabilitation specialist at Shepherd Center, which treats brain and spinal-cord injuries, says that painting helps his patients "feel a sense of accomplishment, whether or not they can get up and walk again." Feight agrees. "People in hospitals feel so helpless, and when they're suddenly given the opportunity to do this, they love it," he says. "They'll say, 'I painted that leaf, or that giraffe,' and their families can't believe it."
Feight started painting in 1965, dabbling with art supplies he'd bought his wife, Linda, now a first-grade teacher. Eventually, he began giving one-man shows around Atlanta. In 1974, he voyaged to Paris to try to sell some of his impressionistic landscapes. But there, he recalls, he asked himself, " 'What are you doing? You're just painting to compete, to be better than the next artist and to sell' I realized I wasn't helping anybody, and I wasn't happy."
So Feight began volunteering to paint murals in local hospitals in his spare time. As he was working alone on a jungle motif in a corridor at Atlanta's Northside Hospital in 1975, a 4-year-old girl, her face scarred by burns, approached him. "I want to paint," the child announced. Realizing that creating art might be even more therapeutic than looking at it, Feight let her join in. "The people are precious, not the art," he says.
Feight's eventual decision to quit his $55,000-a-year advertising job and start the foundation may have been rooted in his childhood. He and an older sister were raised in pastoral Kill-buck, Ohio, by their divorced mother, a schoolteacher, and their grandfather, a country doctor whose patients often could pay him only with potatoes or chickens. "He wasn't driven by money," says Feight, who began premedical studies at the University of Florida but found he wasn't up to the "mental gymnastics." He got an advertising degree instead and married Linda, a fellow graduate, in 1964. They have two sons: Scott, 29, is an Army captain at Fort Benning, Ga., and Drew, 27, is studying for his doctorate in history at the University of Kentucky. Linda, 56, confesses that her husband's growing devotion to his hospital artwork unsettled her at first. "I kept thinking, 'Oh, he'll get over this,' " she says with a laugh. "It was an adjustment, it really was."
The foundation has made some adjustments too; in recent years, it has begun recruiting homeless men and church parishioners to create hospital murals. Feight's goal is to make health professionals the world over, especially in poor countries, aware of art's healing gifts. "I love what I'm doing," he says. "How can you walk away from that?"
AMY LAUGHINGHOUSE in Atlanta