ART AND HEALTHCARE | Learn how to create art with people who are dying, caring and grieving

Liverpool Hospital's palliative-care ward, in partnership with the GroundSwell Project, just won funding from Dry July for the second time to run the Creative Legacy project, says Niki Read, local lead for Compassionate Communities.

The difference with the project this year is that they're working directly with engaging local South West Sydney artists and further developing the work with Casula Powerhouse and the South-West Sydney Arts and Health strategy.

Local artists are invited a workshop on March 14 to learn how to create art with people who are dying, caring and grieving. 

One of the hardest things when a loved one, friend or relative is dying is knowing what to say. How can art bridge that gap? Art lets us communicate ideas and feelings that can be hard to put into words. It can bring beauty and life to sorrow and angst, reminding us that the human experience can be all these things. The legacy artworks can provide ways for a person dying to express their life story without sharing publicly their deepest truths, they become symbols of hope, courage, disappointment, struggle and love.

What moments have you witnessed where art has bridged the gap to someone who's dying? And also the other way round, from patient to loved one ? I've experienced the process of quietly creating a legacy piece for a person in a lot of pain and distress but did not want to be on her own. My presence as an artist working alongside her provided comfort and acknowledgement which she shared with me later when the pain had subsided. Another patient, with voice-related illness, told us her voice grew stronger and more confident through the process of connecting with the artist and her family as a part of the Creative Legacy process. One doctor told me they'd never seen a particular patient smile until they got their legacy artwork. Doctors, nurses and families visiting often tell us, the artists, that the artworks provide the opportunity to connect with the person/patient by asking them about them and the stories they convey. 

What sort of artists are you looking for to contribute to the Creative Legacy project? What will they need to be able to do? Artists need to be local, extremely comfortable in their practice, be able to adapt their practice to creating legacy artworks in a short turnaround. They'll need to be able to sit and converse with patients and families. They'll need good listening and communication skills, as well as resilience, compassion and respect. 

Do the artists you're after have to have links to palliative-care patients? No experience with end-of-life care is necessary but most of us have had some at some point of time, we all die after all. They will however be supported by the Hospital Ward without Walls team to learn all that's needed specific to palliative care, which is not much. Patients in palliative care are just regular people. 

Many people will benefit from this project -- how will patients themselves benefit? Patients benefit by having their stories seen and heard by the artist and their loved ones and then transformed into something of beauty. Everyone has beauty in his or her story and it can be uplifting, life-enhancing and deeply soothing to go through this process. Most patients reported feeling more positive and more connected as a result. The artworks also do something to bring the whole human into the hospital room, enabling everyone to know and recognise more about the person, not just their illnesses. They also benefit, as do the family and friends of the person for years to come, from receiving the artwork and an audio recording of the conversation between them. This encourages inter-generational sharing and offers people the chance to really think about their legacy. Thanks to the generous funding from Dry July, patients are able to participate in this project at no cost; the time and the artworks are given freely.

How do you encourage artists to approach this project? The artists will be trained in the Creative Legacy process which is strengths-based and has been developed out of years of practice and research. The artist then uses his or her own creative lens to amplify the stories. 

How do you approach the patient? Do many decide it's not for them? All patients are invited to be involved in the project through conversation with the artist, and translator if required.  Some say no thanks for a variety of reasons but may decide a week later they're feeling a bit better and would love to do it. 

People are so resilient and beautiful when you sit and listen, no matter what's been thrown at them.

NIKI READ, local lead, Compassionate Communities

What things have artists wanted to express to the patient through their work? Mostly, the beauty of life, really, in all it’s mess and glory! People are so resilient and beautiful when you sit and listen, no matter what's been thrown at them. 

Art is always subjective -- do these artworks always "succeed", whatever that may mean? In the two years of being involved in this work I've never heard of someone not liking their artwork. Now, they may quietly not like the aesthetic, nor want to tell us that, but every single patient has been grateful to get their artworks and be a part of it. 

What are some of the outstanding success stories? Every Creative Legacy story is a success story, they all do something life-enhancing for the patient, when the common perception outside of palliative care is that there's nothing life-enhancing about dying. We know that's not the case for most people. By acknowledging a person in this way, we acknowledge that people want to live their fullest life right to the end. 

How do people get involved? Just contact me (details below). You'll need to apply and attend the March 14 workshop at Liverpool hospital. Artists-in-residence will be paid for their days on the project but workshop attendance is free. Bookings required.

  • Apply: Niki Read, legacy artist and community cultural development worker, Liverpool Hospital's palliative-care ward: niki@thegroundswellproject.com or 0437 877 232.

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