Published on June 20, 2022

Northwest Wisconsin artist to design sculpture for Essentia Health’s Vision Northland project

The sculpture will reside at the replacement hospital’s patient drop-off site on Second Street

Essentia Health is proud to announce award-winning artist and Drummond, Wisconsin, resident Sara Balbin of Dragonfly Studios will be creating a signature sculpture to welcome patients as they enter the replacement St. Mary’s Medical Center.

The Healing Waters of Gitchi Gamig Balbin was awarded the contract after a national search for artists with connections to Essentia’s service area was conducted by Integrated Art Group.

Essentia’s interior design committee for the Vision Northland project, along with art consultant Integrated Art Group of Madison, Wisconsin, oversaw the selection process. Following a thorough review of applicants — including submission of drawings, concepts, models and personal interviews — an artist and their vision was recommended to Essentia leaders.

“I was grateful to be awarded this project,” said Balbin. “It felt right and the decision hit home. I intentionally went to the shores of Lake Superior to receive the news. It was both a homecoming and a culmination of my artist’s journey.”

Named “The Healing Waters of Gitchi Gamig,” Balbin’s artwork draws on local history, including the Anishinaabe culture, while deriving inspiration from Lake Superior, wave imagery, rock cairns and more.

(Please note that “The Healing Waters of Gitchi Gamig” is the correct name of the sculpture.)

While Balbin has been an artist for decades, she was compelled to apply for this particular piece for two reasons — her “Water Trilogy Series” that includes flowing, healing and living waters and her own health experience at Essentia.

“I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2021 and received most of my treatment at Essentia,” said Balbin. “Every staff member, nurse and doctor I encountered on my journey to remission touched me and gave me hope.”

Balbin said those encounters won’t be forgotten and she is dedicating this piece to the caregivers’ kindness and patience.

“Their support was a big part of the reason for my healing and successful outcome,” said Balbin. “I am just so grateful to them for their stewardship, teamwork and sacrifices.”

She also attributes her recovery, in part, to her work and designing this piece for Essentia.

“Designing the sculpture while going through chemotherapy and radiation allowed me to get my mind off the negativity of the disease,” said Balbin. “As a sculptor and art therapist, I understand that part of the healing process is being engaged and creative and producing something beautiful and pleasing that gives good feelings for healing.”

Balbin said the sculpture forms waves reflecting the grace, beauty and power of Lake Superior while symbolizing healing properties. She hopes those who pass by when entering or exiting the hospital find peace, comfort and hope.

The tiered sculpture will have a heart-shaped base to symbolize Essentia’s mission of healing. The rock cairns, which are integral to the sculpture’s meaning, represent a wayfinding guide for patients on their path to health and well-being. They provide assurance for those entering that they are on the right path.

The artwork will be illuminated at night so it can be admired any time of day. It will be approximately 10 feet high, 12 feet wide and five feet deep. The body of the sculpture will be stainless steel, a beautiful and practical material that does not require maintenance

This new piece of art does not replace the existing family sculpture ”Lofting” by Paul Granlund that has greeted patients for years at the patient drop-off near the Miller Dwan Building. Instead, it will be a compliment, with the two sculptures standing approximately 95 feet from each other.

Balbin is currently working on the sculpture. It is set to be installed in the spring of 2023.

Balbin has owned and operated Dragonfly Studios since 1987. Her work can be seen in Wisconsin and Minnesota at museums, colleges, government buildings, tribal entities and more. A certified art therapist, she has also been recognized for her work to help connect people with disabilities to art resources.