Jim Cogswell: Designing the world’s largest ‘vinyl painting’ for the new C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital

For an artist, scale matters. The size of a painter’s canvas can be as small as a postage stamp or as big as the wall of a room. But A&D professor Jim Cogswell’s recent work for the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital and Von Voigtlander Women’s Hospital may be the first time that a painter has been asked to use an 8-story window façade as a canvas.

Jim Cogswell and Melanie Manos

The idea to ask Jim to create a site-specific work on the windows of the new hospital came from Melanie Manos (MFA ’09). Along with her boss, Kathy Ballew, Melanie was in charge of curating a $1.6 million museum-quality art collection for the hospital.

Melanie had seen Cogswell’s experiments with window vinyl at the WORK • Detroit gallery and wondered what it would look like on a massive scale at Mott.

The collection would feature artists with a Michigan connection of some kind. About 19 A&D alumni and faculty have work in the new space.

Michele Oka Doner, a Michigan alum, was commissioned to create a bronze fossil terrazzo floor installation in the two-story sky-lit main lobby. Click for larger version.

Cogswell, along with Larry Cressman and Michele Oka Doner, were among the artists who were asked to create site-specific installations for the hospital. Check out a slideshow of some of the work here.

Jim’s assignment was perhaps the most complex of all the installation projects. It took over two years to plan and execute, required $150,000 worth of vinyl, covers 11,000 square feet of glass, and took 6 months just to install.

Now that this mammoth task is completed, Jim is prepared to reveal the story behind ‘the making of.’ He describes the process as a series of artistic challenges. Some challenges came with the assignment itself but, since Jim enjoys complexity, some were self-imposed.


Step through each of the galleries below in order to see Jim's process.


1. Your Canvas is a Building (That Doesn’t Exist Yet)
Jim’s composition would be shaped by architectural details - the window views, the placement of the elevators, waiting room areas, pillars, etc - but because the building was not built yet, he had to imagine his design using only architectural blueprints.
It was a massive composition to take on—spanning eight floors and running across 33 windows on each floor, each 8 foot by 62 inches.
Another compositional challenge was meeting the demands of multiple viewpoints. Inside, viewers would encounter the composition floor by floor, as a sequence along the corridors.
Outside, the composition could be seen as a whole, but only from a considerable distance. (The outside view is best seen at night.)
2. Working with Vinyl
For durability, the visual elements of Jim’s design needed to be made from vinyl. Vinyl only comes in monochromatic colors. So in order not to limit his design, Jim would need to be inventive with the material.
In order to create multi-colored shapes and patterns, Jim first experimented in his studio with pieces of shelf paper left over from another shape-based sequential painting.
These colored patterns and images would eventually be meticulously recreated with individual pieces of vinyl.
Most professional vinyl cutters make simple monochromatic signs for businesses. Luckily, Jim eventually found a family-owned shop – ImageCrafters Incorporated – that was crazy enough to take on the laborious project. Here, Dave Michalak ‘weeds’ the vinyl ‘vines’ after it’s been cut.
Furthermore, Jim’s contract actually stipulated that no more than 30% of each window could be covered.
This meant the composition had to be open and transparent enough not to block the light or the views. In other words, his challenge as a painter was to create imagery using mostly negative space.
The final price for the vinyl and the cutting was close to $150,000. It took Jim and an assistant six months to install the vinyl over each of the 660 window panes on the building.
3. A 660-Pane Composition
Jim began the organizational process in his studio, working with the theme of Jack and the Beanstalk.
In order to coordinate work with the vinyl cutters, Jim needed a digital layout of all the windows of the building. He created this file in Adobe Illustrator.
With the help of assistants Jim scanned in each of his compositions and began mapping out each of the 660 frames of his composition.
Each window pane would need to be carefully coded and sent to ImageCrafters for cutting and reassembling.
In order not to be confined by the shape of the window panes, Jim ran the image sequences across the mullion.
The result was a mysterious illusion around the picture plane. Where does the painting sit? Is it behind the window or is it floating in the sky? Or…?
Jim also developed this creeping vine motif (or ‘beanstalk’) which climbs through all 8 floors and unifies the composition.
The vines create the sensation of being in nature, tucked away in a secret leafy grove.
He developed a different visual motif for each floor, representing layers of magical reality. Fantastical characters appear and reappear down the corridors.
Level 7, the floor where things fly...
A single ‘bean’ appears on each floor as if dropping from the sky. (Top middle pane.)
The bean, now on Level 7. (Bottom right pane.)
Jim paid special attention to those windows facing the waiting rooms where children and their families would be able to investigate the images over time.
The compositions constantly change with the light and the seasonal views from the window.
The direction of the sun alters the visibility and color of the shapes. Some days an alternate “painting” is created by the shadows on the wall.
Each floor sequence begins with a count on the upper left corner. 7 ‘clouds’ for Level 7.
8 hats on Level 8.
And 9 beans on Level 9.
You can spend a lot of time with this piece. Jim’s installation is, everywhere, packed with clues, references and open-ended story lines for careful viewers to discover and imagine.
Jim’s work is just one of the over 260 works in the hospital. Here’s one place where you’ll actually hope the doctor is running behind schedule.






A sublime achievement Jim, congratulations!

Posted by Robert Platt on February 17, 2012

beautiful and brilliant work Jim.

Posted by askia. on February 21, 2012

Amazing! Public work like this is difficult, and it isn't often that the perfect project gets put in just the right place--but that's precisely what happened here. Great work!

Posted by Elona Van Gent on February 21, 2012


Posted by Kristen on February 21, 2012

I love this - playful, colorful, complex - a special part of the healing process for the children and families who have the opportunity to experience it.

Posted by Katherine Emmons on February 21, 2012

Jim, I remember coming over to work with you and Georgeette with your ceramics/painting class a bunch of years back. Amazing, I have been retired now 9 years! This work is wonderful, amazing, and elegant, witty and beautiful! I wish our own Children's hospital had found you. I tried for that commission and didn't get it. They chose a terrible artist who did lots of shiny mirrors and ceramic pieces in a terrible mosaic, the best I can say is it is "happy". I wish yourMelanie Manos knew about me. I do this sort of site specific work as well in ceramic murals and more. I love your piece, it is lovely and fitting and perfect! Daleene Menning

Posted by Daleene Menniing on February 21, 2012

Ok seeing this design on one level or another did nothing for me. Until my grandchildren and I literally drove up and parked on in front of the old MOTT and looked at it from the outside. From that view we thought it was amazing. I still do not like the visuals from each window or floor but I love it from the distance. I hear many people ask what in the world is this. Then once you explain they can't wait to see it from the outside. It is just a shame that somehow it looked more structured from the inside.

Posted by Laura-Jean Siggens on March 06, 2012

Jim, Congratulations! This is beautiful!!

Posted by Jane Pettit on March 06, 2012

Breathtaking, incredible "piece," Jim. Impressive, to say the least. What a project and experience that must have been!

Posted by Peter Marshall on March 24, 2012

Our friends and neighbors Kathy and Dodie shared this site with us. Thanks to them for sharing and thanks to you for creating such a whimsical and beautiful art piece. I love the climbing vine that weaves throughout and creates a treehouse effect. I also love the fact that the art is a part of the outside natural world, rather than blocking it, and that it shadows itself in certain light. Thank you!

Posted by kathleen malloy on April 10, 2012

Jim, Congratulations on your site-specific work on the windows of the C.S. Mott Children's Hospital and Von Voigtlander Women's Hospital. What an exquisite and extraordinary project!!!!! It's playful, vibrant and energetic,with a thread of peacefulness and tranquility included. I absolutely love it!!!!!!

Posted by Michael L. Swanigan on April 25, 2012

Another sweeping, beautiful project. Can Earth be far behind?

Posted by Ben van der Friend on May 09, 2012

Jim, I can't wait to see this!

Posted by Susan Crowell on May 09, 2012





Anti-Spam Question

What letter does the word youtube start with? (1 character(s) required)