Temple alumna designs mural outside Thomas Jefferson University Hospital

Michele Tremblay, a 1978 painting alumna, used inspiration found from her leukemia diagnosis to partner with her longtime friend, Polly Apfelbaum, a 1978 printmaking alumna, to create a mural.

The mural "Floating Dogwood" is reflected in the glasses of Michele Tremblay, a 1978 painting alumna, on Chestnut near 11th Street on March 7. | COLLEEN CLAGGETT / THE TEMPLE NEWS

Michele Tremblay’s first visit to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital’s oncology ward in February 2017 lasted 28 days while she battled her first round of treatments for leukemia. 

Unimpressed by the gray cement wall across the street from her room’s window, Tremblay knew she could use her artistic talents to give back to the staff at the hospital.

“I have to do something for these people who are working so hard to get me well,” said Tremblay, a 1978 painting alumna. 

Tremblay and her friend Polly Apfelbaum, a 1978 printmaking alumna, spent three years designing a mural on the facade of MilkBoy Philly, a bar on Chestnut Street near 11th. Their piece “Floating Dogwood,” completed on Jan. 12, gives patients at Jefferson University Hospital a view of an array of colorful floral patterns that feature dots and dogwood flowers.

The mural’s planning began in 2018 after Tremblay was discharged from the hospital. But, its creation presented challenges to Tremblay and Apfelbaum, as the roof below the wall at MilkBoy Philly was not large enough to support scaffolding for the painters, Tremblay said. 

Between frequent hospital visits and issues with wall access, the roadblocks were discouraging, Tremblay added.

“The reason I really wanted this to happen is that the doctors and nurses were so good to me,” she said. 

After brainstorming alternatives to painting directly on the wall, Tremblay and Apfelbaum opted to install a frame and print the mural on a vinyl sheet measuring 20 feet long and 82 feet wide that would hang over the wall.

“This was thought about in terms of other patients and giving them something to look at,” Tremblay said. “A moment to escape whatever their diagnosis is and not have to look at that ugly wall.”

The mural, “Floating Dogwood,” by Michele Tremblay, a 1978 painting alumna, is on display above Milkboy on 11th Street near Chestnut on March 7. | COLLEEN CLAGGETT / THE TEMPLE NEWS

When Tremblay was discharged from the hospital in March 2018, Apfelbaum received some initial sketches from her.  Because fresh-cut flowers are not allowed on the oncology floor due to the bacterial risk they pose to immunocompromised patients, Tremblay wanted flowers to be the focus of the mural, a risk-free way to bring flowers to everyone, she said. 

The final product incorporates inspirations from Tremblay’s earlier works collectively known as “Floating Gardens,” which feature colorful 3D paper sculptures of flowers, and Apfelbaum’s print series using cutouts from a dogwood tree. 

Apfelbaum wanted to preserve the originality of Tremblay’s idea for the project and have her vision come to fruition, she said.

Tremblay came up with the Mandala-style layout and flower designs, while Apfelbaum filled the negative spaces with colorful circles of varying sizes, she said.

“We wanted to give off positive karma and positive thoughts, anything to look at other than a dreary brick wall,” Apfelbaum said.

The two initially became friends in a Tyler School of Art and Architecture printmaking class in 1975. Both sophomore transfer students eager to make friends, they bonded over their respective travels in Italy, they said. 

After graduation, Apfelbaum moved to New York City to pursue her art career, while Tremblay started Michele Tremblay Flowers, a floral design business that served the greater Philadelphia area until Tremblay’s retirement. 

Throughout the years, the two kept in contact and in February 2017, Tremblay’s diagnosis sparked their reunion, inspiring them to want to create “Floating Dogwood” together, Tremblay said.

Michele Tremblay, a 1978 painting alumna, stands across from her mural, “Floating Dogwood,” on Chestnut near 11th Street on March 7. | COLLEEN CLAGGETT / THE TEMPLE NEWS

Tremblay is now in remission from her treatments and hopes that “Floating Dogwood” will bring joy and vitality to the hospital’s community for many years to come.

Allison Duggan, an in-patient registered nurse at the Thomas Jefferson hospital oncology ward, took care of Tremblay during her treatment and encouraged her to continue making art. 

“She pushed through some really hard times and was able to keep living her life and creating art and sharing this beautiful gift she has with the world,” said Duggan.

Tremblay’s gift of gratitude was a beaming success and is serving its purpose, Duggan said. 

“It’s a bright spot amongst these dark buildings and dark times inside here,” she added.

Occasionally after work, Duggan takes a moment to admire the mural before going home from the hospital, she said.

“It’s a piece of hope for us to know that our work here that we do, we are helping to improve lives and help people keep living the lives they want to live,” she said.

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