a pause for strengthening and rejuvenation

Tuesday, 8 March 2015

Today was my first day in the head and neck clinic at Peter MacCallum Cancer CentreThis is me talking, but it may well have been Jen, one patient who jumped at my invitation to make art.   She and her husband had arrived in Melbourne from the country and waiting to attend their first appointment in this hospital.

The head and neck clinic has a different feel from the Wednesday clinics, the day I have spent at the hospital creating art with patients and carers since last May. Many patients today are sick and, in some, the affects of the cancer and their treatment are quite visible.  It must be daunting to confront all this on your first clinical appointment.

The waiting area is dynamic – a transformation has been occurring here over the last year or so.  No longer do patients sit in lines or stare into mind-numbing daytime television – there are so many activities, as well as volunteers to engage with, a library to sit in and borrow from, some miniature Japanese gardens to rake and, once a week, the Art Table with artist, me.

Creative practice in a time of crisis, or anxiety, or boredom, resolve, joy or fear pulls into sharp focus a depth of meaning and purpose that so many patients and their carers discover through a cancer diagnosis.  This art space, the materials, an invitation to express – as well as to focus on the important things – are offered as a place to contemplate, discover and nurture. It acknowledges the need individuals have to be more than just “a cancer patient”.

The art space is incorporated into the clinic, yet is slightly to the side of the medical world.    In offering this, Peter Mac is part of a larger and a well-researched shift towards including arts practice, artists and artworks in hospitals, as they are known to contribute to better outcomes for patients.

The clinics are often hugely busy – although I am not. There is no imperative for me to attend to a certain number of people. I can sit with just a few people, maybe even one at a time. Making and talking. Making.  Sometimes just talking.

One of today’s participants was at the hospital supporting his 40-year old brother in-law who had become very sick and seemed to be coming to understand that his life may soon be ending.  He wasn’t yet ready to give up, yet palliative care offers a level of relief to some symptoms of the illness that cannot seem to be found elsewhere. But can there be hope in palliative care?  It is too soon to give in?  Where does a strong faith take you – when it doesn’t take you where you want to go?  Is it possible to think of healing even as you get sicker?  

Thoughtful questions worthy of contemplation and discussion. What can an artist offer to this exploration?   And more broadly in cancer care? What does art contribute when our culture adopts a kind of denial to illness and death? For patients and carers who feel they have been swept into a maelstrom with few tools to navigate or anchor them?

Firstly, there is an ability to sit with and hold a patient or carer’s emotions and conversations. My friend and exemplary architect Greg Burgess talks (with his hands cupped together) about “holding a space” that enables expression and connection. It is at these critical moments in our lives that re/connection to ourself, to our environment, to our community, to each other, feels so important, he says.

The healing energy of creative encounters can enable an unfolding into developing “a deep relationship with myself that hadn’t existed before”. That is, one that will not overwhelm the fragile self, but instead inspires and nurtures it in its transformative journey.

Creativity and an art space, especially in a hospital, are a place of refuge; offering a pause for strengthening and rejuvenation, enabling a renewed capacity. It can also be a place and time to be a feel ‘normal’, where a conversation need not be about illness and treatment – but a sharing of stories.

Today I had a rich exchange with an artist, an accomplished en plain air oil painter.  For years he has painted the rolling clouds, industry, shipping and shoreline of his local environment around Williamstown.  But watercolour! That started our conversation – the frustration and challenge of it!   We both love painting and shared the guilty secret of being a bit impatient to wait for the watercolour to dry before putting on the next layer … often with unhappy results.

In between discussions about colour and paint, he told me something of his experiences with cancer; this was his second round. The illness and treatment tire him so it is hard to get outside to paint. A lifetime of painting, full-time and not being able to paint, imagine that. 

As we whiled away some time together, experimenting with colours and layers, we chatted. Perhaps persevering with the watercolours may be one way he could continue painting? Unlike with oil paints, there is not so much to cart about, and it is easy to sit in the car and work.


playing with watercolours

Another of the possibilities of art and creative practice in cancer care is that we can find ourselves restored because of it. On her first day in the clinic Jen, also an enthusiastic creative, was attracted by the watercolours. This short time together offered her a little respite from a nervous wait and a salient reminder of what holds meaning and purpose for her.


Jen also enjoys the water colours (above). She is inspired by an artist card in another small painting (below)






quotes from Greg Burgess are taken from his A S Hook address given as the 2004 RAIA Gold Medal Recipient.