The Sky Factory

I've spent the day exploring the role of clouds in hospitals. Recent scientific studies show that views of nature--either real or illusory--help hospital patients recovery more quickly than patients with no views. Patients in hospital rooms with windows looking onto a landscape, skyscape, or even a tree experience less stress, feel more relaxed, need less pain medication, and suffer less depression. The same goes for patients undergoing dental surgery, radiation therapy, MRIs, and CAT scans... or just sitting around in the waiting rooms. But not every hospital or doctor's office can offer every patient a room, a table, or a chair with a window view. Luckily, there's the Sky Factory.

The Sky Factory is a small, Iowa-based company that manufactures high-quality, very realistic "SkyCeilings" that create the illusion of looking up into a beautiful blue sky where cozy cumulus clouds seem to float by. Please do not conjure up a cloud poster with torn edges thumb tacked to the ceiling--or worse--acoustical ceiling tiles painted baby blue and sponge-painted with white cloud-like sponge marks. The designers at the Sky Factory use high-res photographs, acrylic tiles, daylight-quality lighting (LED, T5 fluorescent, or the 6500 Kelvin lighting used to combat Seasonal Affective Disorder) to create skylights that trump the tromp l'oeil painters big time.

As I browsed the company's website and portfolio, I noticed that all of the products featured a certain shade of blue for the sky and that no product had only blue sky. There were clouds in every ceiling. Sky Factory seems to only manufacture skies with clouds--and only small cumulus clouds (the "classic" puffy ones) or a softer-edged version called cumulus fractus. The happy clouds. There wasn't any gray in them at all--just white and puffy and light. There were only a few clouds in each ceiling and they were well separated, not clumped.
Of course, you would never put a dreary nimbostratus up there, or a threatening cumulonimbus, or, apparently, even a medium-sized cumulus. Nothing at cirrus level. Naturally, nothing that might portend rain, snow, or a tornado. The cumulus had very little shading. Someone had obviously done some research here testing human responses to various cloud types. But I got to wondering, what's wrong with cirrus? Well, they look cold (they are ice crystals, after all), they can look kind of stingy, distant, remote, not cozy, and not anywhere you'd want to go afterward. Let's face it: we all want to be frolicky in the cumulus clouds in the afterlife--with the wings and halo or without--not in the cirrus. Brrr.

I was out walking with a friend of mine who is a nurse and has spent lots of time in hospitals. I told her about the Sky Factory and about the clouds. Luckily, the sky that morning had both cumulus fractus and cumulonimbus in it. I asked her what clouds she would want to look at if she were in a hospital bed. "That one," she said, pointing to the cumulus fractus. "That one says 'hope.'"

But why? We didn't get much beyond "Because it just does." Do we have some atavistic appreciation for fair-weather clouds?

I talked with a local artist this week--a woman who earned the nickname the "Cloud Queen" because of all the cloud murals she's painted over the years. Her portfolio of her murals included those happy cumulus clouds. I told her about the Sky Factory's clouds and wondered if she had a theory about cloud preferences. "Images of the sky and clouds give us a way out, an opening." The clouds need to be uplifting and light, not heavy and claustrophobia-inducing. They need to be small and not overwhelming. They need to be white, not gray or heavily shaded. In other words, they need to be cumulus or cumulus fractus.

I was looking to post one of my photos of cumulus fractus here and found that in nearly ten months of taking photos of clouds, I had one that fit the bill. The rest are likely to raise blood pressure, increase depression, cause anxiety, cause the shivers, or make you wonder why I moved from Southern California to the Pacific Northwest.

Why? The weather.