Healing Power: Meet the Harlem Artist Lifting the Spirits of Hospital Patients Through Art

Who likes spending time in hospitals? Absolutely, no one.

However, imagine the scent of paint and inspiration in the air. You’re surrounded by breathtaking art and awe-inspiring messages painted on walls, and what if I told you that could help in alleviating the excruciating process?

Well, Ronald Draper, a mixed-medium artist hailing from Harlem is able to uplift and heal through the power of art.

As Director of Contemporary Arts and Culture at Harlem Hospital, Draper spends his days drowning in creativity and bringing to life immaculate pieces of artwork.

Years ago, before dabbling into art, the budding artist led a very different lifestyle working at Wall Street.

Yet, all his life, he’d felt a thrill run through his veins whenever he’d picked up a paintbrush.

In fact, Draper grew up in a arts and crafts household. He fondly remembers his mother encouraging his passion.

It was not until the loss of his father that Draper was led back to his first love. And rather than being destroyed by the death of a loved one, the artist transformed his pain into a life’s work of art that brought forth strength and healing for everyone.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Draper to discuss his background and work in preview of #DraperFontBold, a celebration of his work and progress unveiling Monday, December 5th at the Draper Space Gallery in the Bronx. RSVP right here


Astrid Sarmiento: You’re an all-around artist. You’re a visual artist, art educator, owner of #TheDraperSpace Gallery, Head of the Arts Program at Eagle Academy for Young Men at Ocean Hill, and the Director of Contemporary Arts and Culture at Harlem Hospital. How do you manage your time and keep a balance between all these roles?

Ronald Draper: The real secret to what I do is creating a life that allows the blurred lines. Each of these roles plays into the other. None of the roles are independent of the rest. I don’t wear many hats, I just wear one BIG art hat that I never have to take off.

Any moves or decisions that are made are going to affect at least two, if not all of the positions that I have. Time management between them works fairly easy, balancing all those roles and home life is the hard part!

Doing all of this AND planning a wedding on top of it is a lot, but when you LOVE all the things you do (including planning a wedding), you make it all work.

AS: Congrats on your engagement, hope all goes well with your wedding! Now, I know that art has always been a part of your life, but when your father passed away it became your source of therapy. What does art mean to you and in what ways has art saved your life?

RD: Thank you and art hasn't saved my life in the sense of physical death, but it gave me life in the sense of living every day with a sense of purpose and passion. A life without purpose and passion might as well be looked at as if it was an actual death anyway.


Art has given me a reason to live, and not simply just exist. Art has been what keeps me moving, keeps me flying, and what keeps me grounded at the same time. I couldn't imagine life just clocking in Monday through Friday. I work a lot more hours now, but passion lights my fire. In the words of the great Stanley “Noodles” Davis: I’d rather work 100 hours for me than 40 hours for YOU.

AS: How important is art in the healing process?

RD: Healing in its many forms will always be some combination of a physical and mental reset. Art doesn’t affect the physical directly, but a clear flow of positive energy in the mental will allow more physical progress.

Mind over matter doesn’t matter if the mind doesn't have a clear bill of health. Art does so many different things for so many different people. Art has the ability to be whatever you need at the moment that you need it. A positive outlook can go a long way, and art will be what helps someone see the positive that’s right in front of their face.

AS: Not only do you teach art in schools, but you’re also the Director of Contemporary Arts and Culture at Harlem Hospital. Tell me more about that and your new role at the hospital.

RD: My role with Harlem Hospital is to change the visual profile of the campus with art displays. I curate art experiences that are related to the department that they are in. I have to make sure that the right artwork is there for the right audience.

The work I do is to get ahead of the negative mental spaces that people may be in for whatever reason. I strongly believe that art can place someone in a better mood, which in turn may allow them to be more patient when they have a long wait.

Art has the ability to be whatever you need at the moment that you need it. A positive outlook can go a long way, and art will be what helps someone see the positive that’s right in front of their face.

It can potentially put something into perspective in their lives, which may lead to a better medical decision. Art may even put someone at ease after hearing the traumatic news. The possibilities are endless, and knowing that you have the power to bring so much positive change is as exciting as it gets.


AS: How does it feel to have your work displayed at the hospital that you were born in?

RD: After being taught about Vertis Hayes and the WPA murals that the hospital has in their collection, it brings about a sense of immortality of the artists. These pieces of work were created in the 1930’s and they still have the power to change lives now.

"The two most important days in your life are the day you were born, and the day you find out why." For me, both days were in the same place. I was born there, and I get to make sure that my art lives forever in the Harlem Community.

AS: That's powerful. Why are programmable spaces or art generally important in hospitals? Do you think patients recuperate faster with certain artwork?

RD: Hospitals have to be more than where people come to get bandages, stitches, and flu shots. They have to be spaces that serve and heal the community’s social needs as well.

I can’t say that people recuperate faster for certain, but just the fact that the possibility is there is enough to keep the work going. Art may not shorten the healing process, but it can damn sure make it more enjoyable!

AS: Art therapy has been proven effective at decreasing depression -- so if art plays such a huge impact on healing patients, imagine what it can do for those behind bars. Would you ever consider taking your art to prison cells, or starting a program for those who are in prison as well?

RD: It’s funny that you bring this up. A friend of mine, Emuche Nwaigwe just did an amazing mural project on Rikers Island and we spoke briefly about the possibilities of building art workshops for those behind bars.

Art belongs everywhere. Arts tells so many untold stories and I’d love the opportunity to help bring voices to those who go ignored.

AS: Your content and materials always vary. What inspires you to use certain materials?

RD: I can’t really say that I am inspired to use different materials, I just give credit to what I know. Growing up, my mother always had some kind of crafts at my birthday parties and just around the house period.

Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes, and sometimes those mistakes grow into entirely different concepts that you would have never thought of.

So since I was a little kid, I’ve been working with materials from all over. When I came across ModPodge as an adult, as soon as I opened the jar, I was brought back to my childhood, as I had used it in elementary school. When it comes to creativity, curiosity is king.

AS: Growing up in Harlem, how has that influenced your artwork?

RD: As far as NYC is concerned, Harlem is the home of the bold. We take the fashion risks, we try new things, we don’t like to follow trends, we start our own, for better or worse. (laughs)

My artwork is a manifestation of this. My work is LOUD because I LOVE to make a statement and standout.

AS: While working on a painting, or an installation, what is it that you aim for? How would you describe what makes a piece of art important to you?

RD: I am all for clarity. Beneath the wild visuals, there still has to be a very clear message. It’s similar to writing a speech, in the sense that you focus on your content and how you drive home the content as hard as you can.

Once I reached a point in building a concept where my message is as developed as can be, it’s time to make sure I “say” it as LOUD as possible. But the message must come first, if not, then you’re that guy who’s loud, but that no one wants to listen to.

AS: In which case would you consider a piece a failure?

RD: Never. If I have a hard day with it, then I come back to it the next day. Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes, and sometimes those mistakes grow into entirely different concepts that you would have never thought of. Now you have some amazing new stuff, and you get to start over on the original content. Win-Win!

AS: Is your artwork ever complete?

RD: Absolutely. It’s like an essay, you know when it’s done when it’s done. I aim to get my message out in the clearest and most direct way possible. Adding my signature is like adding your final period to the conclusion of an essay.

AS: What other projects can we expect from you?


RD: New RD products, limited hats, sweatshirts, pins etc. A few large installations on the way and a few surprises...I love surprises. (laughs)

AS: Any words of wisdom or advice for young artists trying to leave a mark?

RD: Be sure to be bold and take risks, no one remembers things that they can’t feel. So be sure to make sure your work leads with emotion and make sure that your audience feels every bit of energy you put out.

You will get knocked down, but just know that the world NEEDS what you have and that you won’t stop until you present it to the world on YOUR terms. Be driven by your fire, and make sure you set the world ablaze while you’re at it.

Celebrate Art and Life with Ronald Draper! RSVP to #DraperFontBold Here!

[Feature Image Courtesy The Takeovah] 

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