by Martin McKellar, Ph.D, Asian Garden Specialist and Volunteer, Harn Museum 

The University of Florida’s Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art, in Gainesville, Florida, has an Asian Rock Garden designed by Kurisu International.

Click HERE to find garden location. 

Dr. Kendall Brown, while Board President of the North American Japanese Garden Association, visited the garden in 2015. It was my good fortune to be the one to introduce him to the Asian Rock Garden. Preparations for the 2016 Biennial Conference, Towards A Healthier World: Japanese Gardens as Places of Health and Well Being, were in progress. When I mentioned the existence of the University of Florida (UF) Health Shands Arts in Medicine program (AIM) , Dr. Brown was enthusiastic. Dr. Brown’s enthusiasm made me wonder if the Harn’s Asian Rock Garden could be formally used in a healing manner.


Photo: Martin McKellar

Cleaning a Zen garden is a soothing activity. The calming and meditative practice might be appropriate for a patient dealing with an illness, with one caveat: raking the gravel in the garden can be physically demanding, more so if one’s energy is diminished by illness. What if the patient is physically unable to visit the garden?

The  Arts in Medicine program  works with patients who are at  the nadir of their illness, unable to leave the hospital, or in some cases, their hospital room.

Tina Mullen, director of AIM, and myself have developed a program that splits the garden activity into two parts: the patient develops the meditative design for the gravel in the Harn’s Asian Rock Garden and I rake the design into the gravel.


Photo: Aaron Wiener

First, AIM’s trained artist in residence identify a receptive patient in the UF Health Shands Hospital. The artist and patient discuss the concept of the garden, and where appropriate, read about traditional Zen gardens. The culmination of the patient’s reflection on the garden is the creation of a design to be raked into the garden’s gravel. There is one difficulty to overcome. The garden is dotted with boulders, ground level lighting and seating. The wooden garden rake is 30 inches wide. Will the patient develop a configuration on paper that can be duplicated in the garden with the 30 inches wide rake? The solution was to make a map to the scale of the garden in a size that fit on the patient’s overbed table,  and to create a multi-leaded pencil that is the equivalent to 30 inches wide in relationship to the map.  Then, the completed design is forwarded to me and I rake the configuration into the gravel.

A Skype session is organized between the artist and the patient in the hospital room, and the Harn museum staff in the garden on the other end. Museum staff with an iPad walk through the garden, stopping to talk about specific features with the patient.

Click HERE to view a video of a session.

A surprising commonality was revealed with the first patient. The patient found the pencil rake to be awkward and difficult to use, just as I found the heavy, 30 inch wooden rake to be an awkward raking tool. We understood each other.

The program gives the patient and the gardener the opportunity to consider new and creative ideas, to solve problems, and to engage in a satisfying exchange. The trial period for the program will be one year, during which four patients will participate. After the patient’s configuration is put into the garden, it is maintained for four to eight weeks. This time period dictates the speed with which the program can accommodate the next interested patient.

Questions or suggestions are welcome. They can be posted at this site or you are welcome to directly contact Martin McKellar at