The full story behind Cayman HospiceCare’s Christmas card

Artist Christel Ibsen is best known for her incredibly detailed, lifelike paintings that capture the innocence of children at play on the beach. A part-time resident of the Cayman Islands, her paintings can be found in collections in dozens of countries.  

When Cayman HospiceCare approached her, however, asking her to paint a picture for their annual Christmas card – which is distributed in the Caymanian Compass today – she was delighted to oblige.  

As an organisation, Cayman HospiceCare has particular significance for Ms Ibsen. Her father, the late professor Bjorn Ibsen, was a doctor widely considered to have been the founder of intensive care. He set up the world’s first medical intensive care unit in Copenhagen, Denmark which for the first time, made it possible for critically-ill patients to be kept alive while a cure and treatment was found. 

Over time, Dr. Ibsen came to feel that developments in intensive care could at times lead to the rights or wishes of a patient being ignored or violated when individuals with no brain activity, for example, were kept alive for years on end.  

“His belief in hospice care and the dignity of life and death became as much a part of his conscience as this commitment to the principles of the intensive care breakthrough he had pioneered,” Ms Ibsen recalls. “This commitment to human dignity […] shaped my childhood and my own beliefs in hospice care. The ‘angels’ of Cayman Hospice Care, as the nurses are often called by the patients and families they care for, are the embodiment of what my father would have prescribed for his terminally ill patients.” 

Ms Ibsen has dedicated her painting, “Angels in Action”, to her father.  

The main requirement on the part of Cayman HospiceCare was that the painting should feature their symbol – angels.  

Jennifer Grant McCarthy, operations and fundraising manager at Cayman HospiceCare, had an idea that children holding hands with angels walking on the beach, might be the way forward. This idea did not sit well with Ms Ibsen, though, who felt that including children and angels in the context of hospice care might be interpreted by some as alluding to a child’s illness.  

“I was quite at a loss as to how to combine these two subject matters without appearing morbid,” she said, “until the moment when, awakening from an operation, I had an epiphany. The children would make little angels as Christmas ornaments and then my painting would be of them decorating the tree.” 

Over the course of several months, Ms Ibsen called on her three grandchildren, her neighbours’ children and her housekeeper’s grandchildren to help in the project. On several different occasions she sat children down and had them draw, colour and cut out angels.  

Next, she had the groundskeeper cut down three palm fronds and “plant” them on the beach, to create a Christmas tree. Then the children, dressed all in white, were asked to hang their angels on the tree, while Ms Ibsen took photos. She held three separate photo shoots, ending up with more than 800 photos.  

It took several more months to sort through all these photos, to choose the best ones of each child and to finalise the composition of the picture. Not only was this a question of working out the best way to arrange her subjects, but she also had to coordinate with Cayman HospiceCare on where the text would appear and how this would affect her design. “It was an especially interesting and creative challenge to shape my painting around the needed copy. For instance, it was imperative that the front and the back of the brochure each could stand on its own, and yet – when opened – become a coherent full image. It was therefore very important that the fold was in the precise middle of the palm tree,” she said.  

Many people, children and adults, have collaborated with Ms Ibsen over the course of several months to make bring her vision to life. She says she has been touched by the generosity of spirit of all those who have assisted in creating this piece and feels that, by creating something for a cause such as hospice care, it becomes a great deal more than simply a painting. 

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