Art for the Heart

Published by: Ellie Grounds / Queensland University of Technology | 30-Oct-2016
At Australia's largest children's hospital, art is the best medicine"¦

At Australia's largest children's hospital, art is the best medicine"¦ Ellie Grounds

Walk into the Lady Cilento Children's Hospital in the inner-city suburb of South Brisbane and you would be forgiven for thinking you had entered a toddler's attraction at Disneyland. A cheerful jingle greets your ears, while your eyes are treated to a colourful, scaled-down model of the hospital made from 170,000 Lego bricks. Throughout the vast atrium, huge sculptures erupt from the edges of each floor. At first glance they appear to be huge versions of toy molecular sets "“ colourful spheres joined together by rods. But on second inspection it's clear the red spheres are heads, and the curved black blocks with pointed ends are beaks "“ this is a family of giant wooden parrots; 'A Little Community' by Melbourne artist Emily Floyd. This is the thing about the art at Lady Cilento "“ it makes you think twice.

The artworks that adorn the walls of the hospital, opened in November 2014, are not merely part of the décor. They lead a double life. Above and beyond visual stimulation, the carefully curated collection serves a very serious purpose "“ to aid in the rehabilitation of the hundreds of young patients who walk through its doors every day. Through its artworks, the hospital is holding the hands of its tiny patients every step of the way.

"There are places like medical imaging where they do a lot of very scary procedures," Director of Arts Program for Children's Health Queensland Lynne Seear explains. "So we've worked on using art to transform those environments so that they can be used to distract and entertain kids when they have to undergo these procedures to try and avoid having to give things like sedatives or general anaesthetics."

Right now, the cardiac catheter lab is being transformed to look like a spaceship and the hospital is working with artists to develop imagery to reflect this theme. "We design an all-encompassing visual environment using artwork on the walls, using special lighting, sometimes projections," Seear explains. Once finished, clinicians will then use the spaceship theme to creative a narrative to distract their young patients from the daunting procedure.

This idea of artworks telling a story is echoed throughout the 12 floors of the intricately designed hospital. Amanda Carter, a senior occupational therapist in the oncology ward, frequently utilises art and creative play as a way to create stories for children to understand both their diagnosis and treatment. "You create a thing called a social story which tells them about what to expect from situations and what usual responses are," Carter explains. "It would cover off all the sensory expectations of a situation "“ what's expected of the child and what might be expected of the parent. We would create [these] stories using pictures "“ wherever possible we use pictures of real things, so real equipment, real rooms."

Art director Seear was working on developing the hospital's "first-class contemporary, museum-quality collection" and art program long before the first hole was dug on the construction site. Deputy Director of the Queensland Art Gallery for 10 of the 16 years she worked there, Seear ran the curatorial, collections management, research and publications section of the gallery and was heavily involved in the development of the Gallery of Modern Art and its Children's Art Centre.

"We did a lot of experimentation with building a family audience for a contemporary art museum and did a lot of very innovative children's programming," she explains. "So, having that experience meant that I was particularly interested in what the intentions were here." Undoubtedly, Seear possesses the extensive curatorial and institutional experience required for Lady Cilento's art director role. But what does she know about helping sick kids?

"I'd also had two children who passed away in the Royal Children's Hospital (at Herston) about eight years apart. They had very complex illnesses which meant that we spent a lot of time in and out of hospital," Seear says matter-of-factly. "So, I had that experience as a mother having to be in an environment which wasn't always enriching, which involved a lot of stress, a lot of waiting, a lot of managing bored, anxious children. I very much felt like I [could] bring both aspects of my life to doing something here that would assist and help create a different kind of environment. I know what a difference an environment like this would have made to our family when we were going through that."

It is this tragic personal experience that makes Seear perfect for the job. She has been in the shoes of the mothers who sit in the waiting rooms of Lady Cilento for hours on end, hoping today will be the day their child can go home. Any other art director might focus the program's efforts solely on improving the experiences of the hospital's young patients. But Seear, with her combination of professional and personal experiences, knows that arts-in-health programs don't only benefit patients. She has designed the hospital's art collection to do what the Royal Children's Hospital was unable to do for her "“ comfort worried families in their time of need.

This doesn't merely cover treatment time. Seear is aware of the need for parents and caregivers to understand not only what will happen during their child's time in hospital, but once they return home. To this end, she has designed Lady Cilento's art collection to reassure families that everything's going to be okay. "We have a department called Child Development and the clinicians in that department look after a lot of kids who, say, might identify on the autism spectrum. What they wanted in their department was artwork by artists who also identify on the autism spectrum "“ and there are a lot," Seear explains. "So, I was able to do that "“ acquire artwork by artists who identify as being on that spectrum and put it in their outpatient department and their clinical zones so that those clinicians can have conversations with families and parents and caregivers about opportunities "“ there is a life to be had, there is a career to be had, there [are] things your child can do in terms of the future."

Of course, the children are allowed to get their hands dirty and their elbows deep in arts and crafts as well. One of the hospital's main priorities is to replicate home life as much as possible for patients and their families, and although riding a scooter or doing cartwheels might be off the cards for some patients, everyday childhood activities like drawing and painting are not.

"[It] can be challenging when a child comes in to hospital "“ they have to refocus or prioritise their interests according to something that they can actually do in a fairly sedentary environment," Carter explains. "Often [art] is something that kids can do when they can't be, you know, playing football or jumping on the trampoline. It is something that is still enjoyable and meaningful and pleasurable to them."

The hospital regularly organises artists-in-residence for the students at the Lady Cilento Children's Hospital School. The school caters for long-term patients, siblings of patients and children of adult patients who are treated next door at the Mater Hospital or across the river at the Royal Brisbane and Women's Hospital, and these art classes (along with being part of the national curriculum, which the school adheres to) provide an outlet for students to express their feelings about the time they and their family members have had to spend there.

One such artist-in-residence is Sam Cranstoun, who ran art workshops with the students in early 2016 as part of a project for Out of the Box festival. The project required Cranstoun to work with the kids to create drawings about their life, their hobbies and their future, which have since been part of a cultural exchange with artworks from students in the Hubei region in China as well as being displayed throughout the hospital itself.

"I wasn't sure what to expect," Cranstoun admits. "I knew that the kids had a very specific situation and I wasn't sure how that would impact on their daily lives, so I was a little bit nervous about the fact that these kids were living in a hospital or nearby. But then when I got there I completely forgot about that, because at the end of the day these were just kids who enjoyed the same things as any other kid. I was able to connect with them on that level and art is such a universal language that all other pretence sort of faded away".

Both Seear and Carter are wary of using the term 'art therapy'. "I'm not an art therapist, I'm just using art as a medium in my toolbox," Carter explains. Art therapy is a clinical discipline requiring extensive credentials and most of Lady Cilento's medical staff haven't been formally trained in this area. (Art therapy courses in Queensland are run as part of the Masters of Mental Health program through the University of Queensland's medical school.) But Seear says the positive impact arts-in-health programs can have on a young mind dealing with so much are clear as day. "When you provide that sort of environment, something happens on a cellular level. They get better quicker. They need less analgesia. They get out of hospital quicker. It's not about treating or curing "“ what I do isn't about that. It's about enhancing."

Although proud of her work, Seear is cautious about making big claims. "Art doesn't cure cancer. Art doesn't save lives," she says matter-of-factly. "It makes [patients] feel better about the experience they're having, and there is some evidence to suggest that when they feel better about it "“ being distracted, being entertained "“ then it communicates to them that we care about the experience that they're having."

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