Petrus Spronk

This column was written after I read the story in The Wombat Post some weeks ago about a project being considered for the hospital. I suggest that an artist should be invited on the committee which is working on this project and an arts officer (part-time) be on the hospital payroll. Here is why.

Part 1. An introduction

Dear committee looking into the changes for the hospital,

A few years ago a doctor, in charge of the oncology ward of the Repatriation Hospital in Melbourne, went for a period of study to Canada. There to his surprise he found, in the hospital where he was working, an exciting art program in progress. He also found that, as a result, the whole feeling at the hospital was different.

Investigating this phenomena further he also found other hospitals in Canada with similar programs.

Realising that such a program, as a result of the creative and therefore positive input was a good thing, he decided upon upon his return to create a similar program for the Repatriation hospital in Heidelberg.

And he did.

This was quite a few years ago. Presently, the Repatriation Hospital, which has now been amalgamated with the Austin Hospital, employs an Arts Officer.

An arts officer for a hospital? To what purpose? What would she do?

Well, what she does not do is get the patients to paint or play with clay, embroider objects or do macramé, write poetry or stories. What she does do is organise ‘events’ which result in the expression of the creative spirit in the hospital and hopefully, motivates this in the patients. If motivation does not occur it will at least create a few smiles. A smile on one’s face opens one’s heart and the opening of one’s heart is the very beginning of the healing process. Smiling at life.

The arts officer at the Repatriation Hospital organises ongoing exhibitions all around the hospital – art work in passages, in waiting rooms and in the wards. And music in the staff dining room. The patients, if unable to leave their beds, are able to enjoy this through the P.A. System. There have been troubadours walking around the wards making music and story tellers entertaining with their tales. There have also been art photographers working on social research projects and involving everyone, trying to show a different side to the story of the hospital. There have been artists in residence, creating permanent art works for the hospital, completely changing the ambiance of the place. Then, once a year, the arts office organises a major exhibition of sculpture, designed by a well known curator. Last year the grounds were totally transformed with the placement of numerous large sculptural works. It was fantastic, if only for the colour it brought into the place.

If, from my writing, you get the idea that the arts officer is turning the hospital into a circus or an an art gallery this is definitely not the case. However, she does bring colour. She does bring the creative spirit – the healing spirit – into the hospital.

What is the purpose of such a project? What it the idea behind it? Why go through the bother of bringing art into the hospital? Is this the right place for art, for the artistic spirit? A place where most people are sick?

We can also look at it in a different way. (In order to understand anything new, we have to look at it in a different way.) In relation to all people involved in a hospital – doctors, nurses, all other staff, visitors and the patients – most people in the hospital are sick. Of those who are, only a few are very sick. There are many people in hospital who can sit up, walk about, think, write, are able to do and make and be creative, meaning ‘live’. Each and every one in the hospital has the right to partake in the expression of the creative spirit. Especially those who need to get well. Why that?

The very act of being alive is a creative act. The creative act throws a wide net and is essential for everyone, both to live with meaning and to live well. Look around at those who are not involved in a creative activity of any kind. Are they very much alive?

The art project in the hospital is not aimed only at the patients, but at ‘the feel’ of the whole of the hospital. Everyone is involved. The aim of the art project in the hospital is to bring the life giving creative spirit into the place and hope it will spread like a virus of health.

Strange thoughts? Have you ever wondered why places such as hospitals seem to lack any colour? Why a dreaded feeling of grey seems to dominate. Besides probably being just another expression of our culture’s colourlessness, it is endemic in many other institutions. Yet colour is one of the aspects of art’s spectrum well able to express life, liveliness and the creative spirit.

Learning is the best healer. The healing process is important not only for those that are not well but it is also important for those that are well to remain so. The healing process is an ongoing one. It is especially important for those who are well and dealing with the sick and dying.

Learning is the best healer because it invokes the creative spirit. This is a positive action and where the positive is active the negative has no chance. Changing the negative aspects of anything into the positive is an excellent start to any program, especially the program of healing.

The director of one ward recently told me he was sick of the elephant grey of the walls and the spew green lino on the floors. The art program had turned him on to other possibilities.

The health virus on the move. He asked me if I could come up with something different for his ward’s refurbishment. I could.

Don’t go away, but return to read part 2 next week.

Oh boy, Definitely time for a Bex and a lie down.


Petrus Spronk is a local author and sculptor who writes a regular column for The Wombat Post.