Topher Delaney grew up around artists. Her brother’s godfather was Marcel Duchamp. Isamu Noguchi’s studio was a block from her house. Over nightly dinners she listened to artists like Mark Rothko and Robert Rauschenberg discuss—and complain about—the art system. She realized early that she would do something different. “I didn’t want to go into the gallery system,” she says. “I wanted to work in land.”

Noguchi encouraged her to study landscape architecture. “These people control the site. It would be good for you to learn this,” he told her. Today nearly all of her work is, as she says, unsellable.

Delaney lives in San Francisco. She is currently finishing Arcimboldo’s Edible Garden for the San Francisco Botanical Garden and has been commissioned as the public artist for the development of a large-scale plaza at 10th and Market in San Francisco. She is also working on a private commission in Marin County for Guide Dogs for the Blind, a suspended Braille sculpture composed of stones she has gathered from the organization’s members.

Q: How did you get started creating healing spaces and sanctuaries?

I had cancer when I was 39. It was very virulent, and I had a very, very poor prognosis. Some of Isamu Noguchi’s work felt like a sanctuary to me—and I’m from Europe so I grew up seeing sanctuaries outside French churches—and there was nothing around me like that. So I thought maybe I could make gardens, or a place for people to go.

I was two weeks out of surgery when I received a call to compete for USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center to create a healing garden. I was in chemotherapy and I looked like a rat. The architect who called me in on the project said, “Don’t tell them that you have cancer, because this is a long project. It’s going to be 10 years out.”

I showed the panel my work. It’s very colorful. I said, “So what do you think of my work?”

They all looked at me and said, “We hate it. It’s way too artistic. Our patients are very ill, and cancer’s a serious condition. This work is too colorful.” Then they asked, “Is there anything that you can tell us that would give us other information?”

I replied, “I think I am the only one at this table who is taking CMF.” That is cyclophosphamide, methotrexate, and fluorouracil 5-FU.

“None of you are patients. You are the agency, the managers, and you’re concerned about us. We want to live. We don’t need a sanctuary garden about passage off the planet. We want passage on the planet.”

I thought it was the worst interview I’d ever been in. But we got the project. So that was the beginning.

Q: Besides color, are there other things that you do differently when creating a healing space?

Historically, such sites were developed because a spiritually energetic situation evidenced itself. All of these sites have some guiding principles. Lourdes, for instance, has water coming out of the ground and sits on energetic ley lines. Stonehenge is on ley lines. Currently, artists follow other guidelines.

You need to have some type of controlled passage, some type of boundary. You need protection of some kind. If there’s a child who has cancer, or someone with Alzheimer’s, they need protection.

If you are working on a full piece—not just a sculpture or a bench—then you need to know who’s maintaining it. You need to go from back of house, which is maintenance, to front of house, which is what the artist is doing. I went to see a beautiful Maya Lin piece, for example, at the University of Michigan. It looked like crap. And I thought, it’s like no one cares about the maintenance. It just was abysmal.

Another consideration is climate. If you’re working in health care, no one can go outside when it’s windy because they can’t take it, and anyone with cancer can’t go outside because different drugs makes you highly sensitive to light.

Access is also important. I just visited  the Moores Cancer Center at UC–San Diego. The hospital has the most beautiful bamboo meditation garden. But there was not a soul in it. The garden is two rooms away from the infusion center, and no one wants to leave the person who’s getting the infusion. So I was trying to work with the engineers and facilities to move the doors, just to provide access to that garden. It’s not just that you’re making a piece; you have to understand infrastructure and architecture.

Also, you have to understand your public. I did a garden for pediatric oncology patients. The funding agency—which was a trustee group of basically terrific grandmothers—wanted a garden with bamboo and water. That made sense to them. My proposal was a colorful garden in which you walked through a dinosaur. They hated it. But there was one trustee who was a young parent. She said, “You want something for yourself. I want something for us, the young mothers, because our children have other siblings.” And that had never been brought up. The garden went forward with the dinosaur.

Q: Are you seeing increased opportunities for artists to work on healing spaces?

Not really. Hospitals are a conservative group. It is not the Matisse Chapel, let us put it that way. If you were to propose that now, you would probably get a lot of pushback. “Those nude bodies? No. You need to put some clothes on them.”

Public art is difficult now because fear is so much a part of it. A little town outside of San Francisco put some poles up in the median and people were infuriated. Supervisors lost their jobs. I have no idea why you would be angry about little poles. Really, it’s so crazy.

Q: What’s your advice to artists wanting to work in public art?

Present everything as a temporary solution and at least you can get something up. Once it becomes not temporary, it’s a whole other story. Then you’re working with agencies, and it depends on how visionary they are. Start with what you can do and what you know how to do.

If the work you create ends up being reduced from your original vision, it’s probably not a good thing for you to continue. For example, if someone likes the butterflies that you did and doesn’t realize that your issue is not butterflies but rather something about migratory patterns or more politically complicated, you’re going to be asked to make butterflies over and over. You really have to have nerves of steel.

Karen Olson is executive editor of Public Art Review.

From Public Art Review #48, where this article originally appeared as “Making Sanctuary.”