Walking down the hallways, you can’t help but feel you’re in a gallery. Photographs and paintings line the walls, drawing your eye: on one side, a young Heath Ledger screams and leaps, playing air guitar; across the hall, the Tap Dogs thrash about in red dirt. The energy the images exude is almost palpable -viewers have no choice but to be moved by the works’ positive and uplifting bent.
It’s not at all what you would expect while strolling though the corridors of a hospital.
Curator Connie Petrillo is behind this extensive collection of artwork at St John of God Murdoch hospital. She’s a woman who believes strongly in the healing power of art, enough to want to take the theory a step further.
The hospital’s art collection is a long-established one. Now, thanks to Connie, the works are being supplemented by a dedicated TV channel, enabling the healing benefits to reach even further. The channel is screening Makers, a series of short documentaries featuring in-depth interviews with the artists who are exhibited in the hospital, and giving patients an insight into the stories behind each piece.
Sitting in her tiny office, surrounded by seemingly endless boxes of works waiting to be hung up around the hospital, Connie speaks passionately about her expanded plans for healing patients through art.
“When we view art, we are transported to a different place – it’s like a mental escape,” she explains. “This transportation of the mind then has an effect on the body; as the mind relaxes, the body follows.”
For years, Connie had the vision to bring the hospital’s extensive collection to life via film, but didn’t know how she could achieve it.
Her light-bulb moment came when she discovered her friend – artist and editor of the Artist’s Chronicles magazine Lyn DiCiero – had been busy creating short films profiling artists on the magazine’s website. The two women teamed up and put in a funding bid to Documentary Australia Foundation. They won, triumphing from among 27 applicants, a result that came down to the documentaries’ potential for long-term change by improving health and recovery in patients.
Now, with the full financial support of the hospital, Connie says it is her mission to prove that art is a key to healing. And there’s ample research to support her philosophy.
Lyn explains how the documentaries have been based on scientific studies, proving that art has the potential to heal by changing a person’s physiology from a position of stress to deep relaxation, altering brainwave patterns and affecting the nervous system, hormonal balance and neurotransmitters.
American psychiatrist Dr Gene Cohen led the charge in 2001 with a landmark four-year study, finding an holistic approach to therapeutic healing can reduce hospital stays and even the need for pain medication.
Jo Kelly, president of the Australian and New Zealand Art Therapy Association, agrees.
“When you engage in something you enjoy and get relaxation from, that impacts your brain and cells. This is an holistic way of addressing wellbeing both physically and mentally,” says Jo.
Renowned Perth photographer Frances Andrijich, responsible for those Heath Ledger shots, is one artist featuring in the Makers series.
Frances also believes in the healing power of art. “It takes everyone away from what they’re going through,” she says.
With a potential annual audience of more than 52,000 people, the series will also likely benefit featured artists along with patients.
Only time will tell how effective the series, and the arts channel, will be at accelerating healing in the hospital. Once it has been on air for a while, Connie aims to enlist the Social Research Centre of Melbourne to assess its effectiveness. The results could be passed on to key organisations, such as the Australian Council on Healthcare Standards, to drive change elsewhere.
“This is the first step in the bigger picture,” she says. “The plan is to extend the program to bring more art to the patients’ beds – with mobile art projects for them to do in their beds, where someone can come and show them how to paint or make something.”
Connie plans to host artists-in-residence at the hospital, so patients can watch an artist at work, and to create small pop-up shows with actors, jazz musicians and dancers. The aim is to do anything to create a positive mental outlook in patients, says Connie. “It’s the way of the future. If anything can help, art can.”