Melbourne is currently hosting the 20th International AIDS conference, a huge and important meeting of minds, events and exhibitions. It has focussed my mind back to the early 2000s when, for a number of years, I had the very great pleasure of working with men and women living with HIV/AIDS through programs run through the Alfred Hospital, Melbourne.
At the time (2001) Fairfield House had recently opened as both an in-patient and out-patient unit (of the Alfred Hospital), providing medical and social support to people with HIV/AIDS. Since then, I believe it has become only an out-patient unit. It was quite a beautiful unit – tastefully designed, with small courtyard gardens, quiet spaces, community areas and staffed with compassionate and I recall humourous and friendly staff. Patients would come there for all sorts of reasons – to stay in hospital whilst medications were being modified, to stabilise health, for respite, socialisation with other sufferers, and of course, some came to spend their last days there and die.
Mosaic installed in Fairfield House … the garden had yet to reach its full potential!
By the early 2000s treatments had become more effective and people were beginning to feel confident that an HIV diagnosis was not now a death sentence. Nonetheless, many people attending at Fairfield House had contracted the virus some years beforehand and lived in the shadow of the death of many friends and with deep feelings of ‘survivor guilt’ – that they had lived whilst so many others had died. I also saw the very challenging realities of maintaining health through the onerous drug regime and the many side-effects of these drugs. Living with the virus had an immense impact on their capacity to work, on their mental health, and their social and intimate life. Many were unsupported by friends and family, so although HIV was no long a death sentence, for some, it meant a difficult and lonely life. The more recently diagnosed had the benefits of newer and earlier treatments and perhaps a more informed public realm in which they could speak about the virus.
Nonetheless, there was a lot of support around for people living with the virus, through Fairfield House, Positive Women, Straight Arrows, and the Positive Living Centre, to name a few. There was also funds around to support these people through creative projects as well as programs to assist them socialise, learn new skills such as cooking and to manage their health. My first project at Fairfield House was working in collaboration with Frances Foster, an Occupational Therapist with men.
As Fairfield House was very new at the time, our first art project was to create a community mosaic work to enhance a small courtyard. This lovely space opened from the community rooms and was also viewed as people walked along the corridor. Living in the shadow of a life-threatening illness of course brings attention to mortality; it also means that much attention is given to the maintenance of health, or the managing of ill-health. It is important, I believe, to acknowledge the realities – and to invite participants to ‘put themselves in the picture’ when they are creating.
So for this mosaic we discussed themes of: what is left behind? what are your passions? what is meaningful to you? These questions allowed the men to think about the layers that make up each as a person, and to find common ground with others …. that stretches beyond but does not exclude illness and death. We drew up large pictures, cut them out and arranged them to create a design that was harmonious and reflective of the group.
These groups are incredibly potent. When I first starting working as an artist in hospitals, Mary Archibald the Director of Nursing at the Burwood Hospital, said that patients are passive receivers and one of the aims of art program at that hospital was to encourage them to be active contributors. Art practice in the health setting has so many benefits, not least of which is its role in activation – giving patients something meaningful to do. At Fairfield House, there was also the benefit of contributing to the beauty of the environment, as well as being able to leave something behind, as a sign of hope for some, or as a memory of others. So inside this mosaic there are flowers, a log cabin one man dreamed of, the love of the freedom dolphins seem to enjoy, sitting by the fire, nature and friendship.
I loved working at Fairfield House, and later with some of the other groups supporting men and women with HIV/AIDs. I loved the humanity, the connections, the honesty, the creativity. I loved the sharing, the commitment to the creativity and help that many of the men gave to getting the project up on the wall. The project received much acclaim and publicity and inspired a number of follow-on art projects.