Jenny McFarlane is full of enthusiasm about her job as curator of Arts in Health at Canberra Hospital. McFarlane is responsible for commissioning and co-ordinating the art at the hospital and making the partnership between the artist and the hospital happen. McFarlane says that, in her previous roles as art curator (at Canberra Museums and Galleries, and the ACT Assembly), she represented the voice of the artist. But in this role, McFarlane is conscious of her prime responsibility being to the audience, that is the patients and staff of the hospital.
If you have ever been a patient in a hospital, either confined to a bed or as an outpatient or as a visitor, you know the surroundings can have an effect on your state of mind. In the past, art would have been the last thing anyone would have considered in relation to a patient's well-being. Hygiene and convenience were the ostensible reasons why everything in hospitals was painted in institutional colours of white, grey and green. There may have been good reasons for this but modern research has confirmed that the type of surroundings in hospitals can have an effect on the patients and staff.
New methods of producing art make it possible to have painted walls and art in hospitals and still maintain high degrees of hygiene even in isolation wards. The choice of art can range from bright and colourful to quiet and restful images that can suit appropriate areas of hospitals. It can be as simple as a set of painted doors on a lift or flower decals on a corridor window. Great sensitivity has to be displayed to get the balance right. No-one wants to be in a hospital bed held hostage to a controversial or confronting work of art, and certainly not in the recently opened adolescent ward at Canberra Hospital. The brief as seen by Jenny McFarlane and the hospital staff who care for these patients was for a commissioned work of art that would enliven and lift the spirits of adolescents who were patients in the paediatrics section of the new wing of the hospital.
Canberra artist Paul Summerfield was chosen to create some of this artwork. Summerfield has a background in digital media and graphic design. He is well known for his pop-up exhibitions around Canberra and his pieces were projected on to the front of the National Library of Australia during the Enlighten festival in 2012. He is working on an artist's book illustrating Oscar Wilde's story The Selfish Giant which will be launched at a "pop-up" exhibition at the ANU Drill Hall Gallery on July 31.
McFarlane was excited by Summerfield's work and thought it would be appropriate for the adolescent ward. In fact, Summerfield had donated several of his prints to other hospitals. He creates his complex landscapes on the computer using digital drawing techniques. The completed works can then be printed on paper or vinyl. Summerfield creates visions of fantastic worlds inhabited by small figurative images arranged in surreal relationships to one another. Cows, birds, clouds, flowers and animals all inhabit his bright and flower-filled landscapes rather in the manner of a contemporary Lewis Carroll roll call (shoes and ships and sealing wax).
The Canberra Hospital Commission was a much more ambitious project. It called for a mural on the corridor leading into the adolescent ward and a series of wall panels for an enclosed outdoor balcony. The finished work in the corridor was printed onto vinyl that was then applied to the walls like wall paper. This means that the art is part of the wall and provides a clean surface that does not protrude into the hospital space. On the balcony the vinyl will be applied to aluminium panels.
The mural Dreaming of the Sky Aquarium (8 x 3 metres) is in the entry corridor to the adolescent ward and spans two walls. It is specially designed to be a colourful imaginary landscape, crowded with tiny images for viewers to discover. Birds, houses, fields, trees and clouds all juggle for attention yet a strong sense of design keeps the work grounded in an effective graphic image that also reads well from a distance. Tiny white clouds that sometimes morph into birds provide a connecting link.
Paul Summerfield's work has this element of fantasy that ignites the imagination and draws the viewer into the unfolding scenes along the wall. Young people have said they like it because of its "hidden detail" and because it has made the space "less boring and more welcoming".
The outdoor balcony will have another of these murals, an imaginative portrait of the ward, to be installed shortly. In this work, River of Dreams, the artist will emphasise healing, hope and wonder. He chose these themes after consulting with many of the young patients. Some young people have to make frequent visits to the hospital and spend a lot of time there so it is fitting that they have a stake in the art. The work includes significant elements from the hospital experience as identified by the adolescents themselves. Images include blankets warmed by clucky chickens and white clouds that become hospital beds floating in a magical world.
Indeed, I came away from my visit to the Canberra hospital sad that young people have to spend any time in hospital but impressed with the staff and high level of care and attention that all those involved have taken to making the place where they and their patients spend their time, more their space than that of an institution.
The Arts and Health Program is holding a survey on responses to art in the Canberra Hospital.