GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP -- Robert Koch wiped sweat from his bald head, stretched his chest and pulled down the neckline of his T-shirt to show the scar by his heart.

He had just helped hoist his 800-pound steel sculpture by the entrance of AtlantiCare’s Mainland Campus on Tuesday, and he watched it standing upright for the first time.

Two years ago, he thought he was going to die.

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His artwork "Embracing Arms" is the most visible part of the hospital’s new 225-piece “Healing Arts” collection. It coincides with a $62.5 million, 30,000-square-foot expansion and renovation of the building and facilities being unveiled next month.

Koch, 53, of Jersey City, had triple bypass heart surgery at 51.

Getting back to his profession and life-long passion might be considered a relaxing pursuit had he dealt with watercolors or oils.

But his medium is heavy steel, and he helps install it.

“I’ve always done art,” he said.

His profession is tied to his childhood and the influence of watching famous sculptor Harry Bertoia, who lived down the street from his grandmother.

“From the time I was a little kid, I’d go to grandma’s house and he’d be out there welding these huge monumental sculptures and I always thought it was cool--sparks and flames. It just looked like fun,” he said.

AtlantiCare is preparing to unveil significant renovations to its 40-year-old Pomona, Galloway Township campus in mid-June, as well as the art that will decorate it.

Hospital officials said $250,000 was budgeted for artwork through AtlantiCare’s Healing Arts Program.

This involved about 38 commissioned pieces by 11 artists, including four Atlantic County artists and two Ocean County ones, and about 200 other pieces by a combined 70 artists.

AtlantiCare has similar efforts elsewhere.

“It’s about mind, body and spirit. It’s not just about body. And arts provide that, I think,” said Cheryl Broschard, AtlantiCare’s community and cultural project coordinator.

The Health Park at Hammonton incorporates some rural artwork and blueberries for which the region is famous.

Facilities in Atlantic City and Cape May Court House incorporate more seashore themes, she said.

In Galloway Township, the Pinelands and nature are used in some of the pieces.

AtlantiCare put out requests for artwork. Nearly 200 artists responded, submitting approximately 2,000 pieces of artwork for consideration, Broschard said.

A commissioned piece going indoors was created by Toms River-based artist Joanie San Chirico. She made a massive work of 10, four-foot-by-six foot panels made of eco-resin from recycled plastic bottles.

Each panel weighs 80 pounds and uses satellite imagery to show Atlantic County marshes, bays and wetlands.

San Chirico specializes in artwork for public spaces, including elsewhere in AtlantiCare properties.

“The people who go into public spaces like hospitals and corporate lobbies or hotel lobbies are not necessarily the same people who would go to a museum or gallery,” she said. “But the cool thing is people who wouldn’t look at the artwork otherwise will see it. They can interpret it any way they want.”

Koch made his sculpture from 3,000 feet of metal rods, cut them into 4-inch pieces, welded them together and coated it with 230 pounds of stainless steel.

A circle in the middle connects two separate arches, adding a nurturing aspect of protection to "Embracing Arms," he said.

He started it on Jan. 1 and finished last week.

The metal sculpture stands 11.5 feet tall. The ceilings to his studio were a foot too short.

So Koch never saw it standing before Tuesday. He would take photos of it on the ground and hold them vertically.

The finished piece was too large to fit into his freight elevator in Jersey City, so he hauled it down eight steps.

It took six men to unload the sculpture from a rental van and an electric hoist was used to rest it onto a concrete platform outside the hospital.

“I’m not doing anything tomorrow except for sleep,” he said.


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