‘JOY OF LIFE’
PAINTED by 109 PATIENTS AND PARTICIPANTS AT MONASH MEDICAL CENTRE.
2.5m x 1.5m
‘JOY OF LIFE’ (2012)
One hundred and fifty years ago, Florence Nightingale, the mother of modern nursing, ascribed the rapid healing powers of patients in the fever ward to the bright-colours emanating from the flowers she placed there. Although she conceded we know very little “about the way in which we are affected by form, by colour, and light, we do know this, that they have an actual physical effect”; the implication being the effect is not only on the mind, but the body too. Nightingale was convinced the “variety of form and [the] brilliancy of colour in the objects” presents a necessary diversion that has the power to aid patients, as she delicately puts it, as a “means of recovery” (Nightingale, 2009, p. 58).
Throughout my years facilitating artwork projects to thousands of participants across healthcare, I have often observed the therapeutic healing power of colour, particularly when used in the creation of communal artworks.
Cut-outs of bright ‘pink ladies’ adorned the lawn of the Monash Medical Centre in Moorabbin on the first day of my artist-in-residency to mark breast cancer awareness. As I draped the artwork project over my worktable, I watched the waiting room seats quickly fill with both women and men from all walks of life. Breast cancer does not discriminate. This year thirteen and a half thousand women and a much smaller number of men in Australia will receive the diagnosis (it is 100 times more common in women than men). More than one of these women sat in the waiting room that afternoon patiently anxiously awaiting her diagnosis.
Waiting rooms are called waiting rooms for obvious reasons and patients are called patients because everyone is expected to be patient. Last year’s dog-eared magazines hold little appeal for most; unfortunately, not much attention is paid to how people feel as they wait with nothing to do. Setting up my artwork project in the outpatient’s waiting room, I remember well the fear I felt as I waited for my own breast cancer diagnosis in 2010. Restless, trying not to worry, but also not knowing how best to fill the time, I wished then that I had the comfort of a paintbrush in my hand. My mind began to wander. I began contemplating Florence Nightingale and her astute observation of the healing power of brightly coloured flowers. I wondered how the creative arts might be used to good purpose in hospital waiting rooms, and I began imagining possible designs.
The artwork is quite a big canvas. A larger than life figure dominates the centre. Her red lips wear a serene smile as she proudly displays her pink ribbons. Over the next seven days, more than one hundred patients ensure that dozens of flowers blossom. They open on a field of pink. Rainbow colours - purple, orange, yellow, blue and green - each celebrate the joy of life.
People who have experienced cancer talk to one another in a kind of shorthand, often eager to talk to someone about their cancer experience and to make comparisons. This turns my connection with those waiting for treatment or appointments into something special – there is a kind of knowing. There is a trust and bond between us that is impossible to quantify. As they paint, topics range from an intellectual conversation about medieval manuscripts to a simple discussion of an idyllic childhood spent growing up in the Polish countryside. Another tells me how, in past times, when his mother was very poor, she liked to crush red petals to colour her lips. We share the joy and sadness of our different life-story experiences.
On the oncology ward, in the visitor’s room, the members of a close-knit family are gathered. Staff members speak in hushed tones when they begin to convey the news that nobody wants to hear. It sparks a flurry of activity as family members, one by one, are drawn back again to view the artwork. Sometimes it’s just to look at the colours. At other times it is to fill the uncertain hours, creating personal symbols and expressions of gratitude for the life of a loved one lying gravely ill nearby.
On completion, permanent communal artworks such as the Joy of Life tell a story. They evolve from being more than just another painting exercise, into special and lasting memorials. The creative purpose of art is not only to empower individual artists to find some extra meaning in life, important as that is, but art activities in this context can create a bridge between unexpressed inner thoughts and feelings about cancer and the hard external reality of trying to survive. For most people the experience of painting generates real emotional resonance. Indeed, they are often totally surprised by the result, particularly those who were initially reluctant to be enlisted as artists.
In my experience there is almost always an unexpected surprise for the patient when viewing the final artwork for the first time. The finished images have an uncanny way of bringing most patients a sense of comfort, pleasure and often a deep emotional satisfaction. This is because art has the power to give special meaning to the cancer experience, a time often confusing, confronting and painful. It is an example of how a seemingly small contribution can carry with it great emotional meaning. The vibrant energy emanating from the work succeeds by drawing in the observer. The patient appears to become absorbed and fascinated by the composition and the combination of colours. This common occurrence reflects that intangible, life-affirming element that Nightingale observed and described so long ago. It is that special something that colour and art alone have the ability to inspire.
Communal artwork projects, such as the Joy of Life, exemplify how colour and art can be effectively combined and applied, as a “means of recovery” from the trauma of cancer, for both men and women from all walks of life. My hope is that hospital waiting rooms everywhere in the future may be filled, at the very least, with the healing power that emanates from something as simple as a bunch of colourful flowers; but of course, my personal wish for every patient is for much more.
The Joy of Life artwork is dedicated to the memory of my sisters-in-law, Valerie McAdam and Irene McAdam Haigh. I express gratitude to the staff and patients of Monash Medical Centre, Moorabbin, Southern Health, Peter Mac and BreastScreen Victoria. In particular, I extend my special thanks to Gemma Sacco, Sandra Stephens, Lisa Scott and Susannah Taylor for their personal support and assistance to me, and their belief in the Joy of Life project from the start.
Nightingale, F. (2009, Ed). Notes on nursing. New York: Fall River Press.