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My first visit to Heritage Lakes to discuss the theme of the “Schoolhouse” artwork was February 11th 2009. The day was hot, but the sky was grey and the atmosphere was heavy with the smell of burnt eucalyptus leaves and smoke. Just three days before the “Black Saturday”* bushfires swept over mountains, and thundered through gullies. The thirty meter high wall of flames danced along ridges, engulfing all in its path. It destroyed the nearby towns of Kinglake, Kinglake West and Strathewan. *The “Black Saturday” bushfires across Victoria on February 7th 2009, devastated whole towns and villages. The fires claimed the lives of 173 men, women and children. That day this event became Australia’s worst natural disaster. 


As I drove through the front gates of Heritage Lakes, the Country Fire Authority fire station next door was alive with activity. Firemen and women in bright yellow suits ran to and fro. The fire trucks roared down the driveway on their way to put out new fires, before the next spell of scorching hot weather. All around, the trees were filled with native birds seeking refuge, their loud shrieks calling other survivors to safety.


Heritage Lakes is set in four acres of rural countryside in an area that was once market gardens. At the entrance to the property stands the former South Morang Primary School. This bluestone building first opened its door to educate Victorian school children in 1875. 


Set near the corner of an important road junction, where livestock sales yards once stood, remnant eucalyptus gum trees tower over Heritage Lakes.  Beneath these trees, gardens landscaped with native groundcover attract kookaburras and sulphur crested cockatoos. Two ornamental lakes are home to wild ducks that forage between basalt boulders and native grasses and pink flowering grevilleas. The theme of the artwork - one to represent this scene - was determined very quickly.


The process and outcomes


Over the next three weeks, I drew the simple outlines of a gum tree and two kookaburras. I placed the schoolhouse in the middle of the work as its central focus. Then I drew two parallel lines in the background to represent the land and the farming community. Below the schoolhouse I drew a semi-circular line to represent one of the ornamental lakes. The design was deliberately left open to allow as many residents as possible an opportunity to fill in the gaps. 


My first day at Heritage Lakes was spent in the dedicated activities room and good progress was made. Here, the more able-bodied residents worked independently for quite long periods of time. First the schoolhouse was painted, and then the gum tree and the backgrounds were followed by the lake and ducks.


On my second day, the project moved to the lounge/activity room on the second floor. Seated at tables and in private rooms, the artists used a combination of stencils and other creative aids to build up the decorations to cover the backgrounds with detail. 


Most artists enjoyed lightly running their fingers over the surface of the canvas before trying out the different stencils. Each artist waited excitedly for the stencils to be lifted to see the images created by color overlays and combinations. This usually drew gasps of surprise and delight. 


Each new design or color brought personal and thought provoking stories about life on the land. These commentaries in turn led to the introduction of the cattle grazing in the green pastures. Before long, brightly colored “bottle brush” foliage covered the bare trees and a rose garland created a permanent memory of one resident’s love of gardening. Another artist’s keen eye for detail became apparent. She skillfully introduced spot color highlights, after carefully placing bright red waratah blossoms to compliment the orange brick chimney stacks. By the end of the second day all that was left to do was add the names of the twenty five contributing artists to the finished work.


My personal experiences 


When I arrived to start the project on March 3rd 2009, not all of Victoria’s bushfire had been extinguished. Each new day, news headlines unfolded stories of tragic loss and miracles, and showed blackened images of heroism and courage. Some of my artists seemed confused by the images, but at the same time they understood and empathized with the experience so many had endured. It was not surprising that the artists began to share their own stories of loss and bushfire survival. Our conversations centered on reassurance and the concept of home as a safe haven. As a result, the images soon came to represent something other than decorations, and this seemed to bring some degree of comfort and understanding. 


In every project each participant and unique contribution is special. In their own way each person brings both ideas and different skills to a communal artwork. Often unknown, but none-the-less outstanding hidden skills, are sometimes revealed in those living with dementia. The unknown skill of one artist at Heritage Lakes was a surprise to all. Later that day, one of the artists spent 90 minutes meticulously painting the feathers of the kookaburra and the gum leaves.


A highlight vignette of the project


Although I have read extensively about frontotemporal dementia and I am aware than about 8% of those living in care may live with this particular type of dementia, I have never knowingly worked with someone with this form. After some delicate negotiation, due to Eliza’s* profound hearing impairment, this artist initially chose to paint a cluster of gum leaves in the tree beside the two kookaburras. In silence she painted the gum leaves many times over, trying to perfect the color and texture whilst staying between the lines. 


When the extent of Eliza’s capability finally dawned on me, I gently introduced a full color picture of a kookaburra and invited her to paint the bird. On a dish I arranged a wide selection of brown paint of different hues for her. Eliza carefully studied the photograph and quickly painted the base color following the image. With meticulous detail, she then began introducing the highlights, fanning out the tiny top feathers with a fine brush. Each time Eliza ran out of paint, she impatiently tapped her brush on top of the tin of the color she wanted, urging me to hurry up. After about 90 minutes, working silently to perfect her painting, Eliza took a deep breathe, and in a dramatic flourish dotted the kookaburra’s eye. She then put down her brush and told me she was finished.


*Eliza is not her real name.

Later that day, one of the artists spent 90 minutes meticulously painting the feathers of the kookaburra and the gum leaves.


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