Views And Reviews

Art Injection: Youth Arts in Hospital

BMJ 1994; 309 doi: (Published 29 October 1994) Cite this as: BMJ 1994;309:1170
  1. D Isaacs

    Ed Amanda Buckland Available from Child Health information Unit, Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children, Camperdown NSW 2050, Australia (A$25, pp 72) ISBN 0–9599152–7–3

    To be an adolescent is to be disadvantaged, caught in a limbo between the child and adult worlds, misunderstood by almost everyone. To be a chronically ill adolescent is a double disadvantage.

    Adolescents often find it difficult to cope with their feelings and have difficulty communicating their problems. Art is one medium through which adolescents can express their feelings, a medium that they do not find threatening; and the act of creativity can itself be therapeutic. Art Injection provides a detailed and practical account of how one hospital's youth art programme has developed.

    The department of adolescent medicine at the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children has undertaken several projects with artists over the past ten years, including workshops, films, radio documentaries, and magazines. However, this work has taken on a new dimension since 1991, when a full time artist in residence was appointed with funding from the private sector. The two Art Injection projects are the most exciting of many recent initiatives involving the artist, staff, and children of the adolescent ward.

    Art Injection One was an innovative collaboration with the College of the Arts of Sydney University. Art students helped adolescents to make sculptures from old hospital equipment. The results were startling. A wheelchair encased in plaster of Paris houses a twisted figure made of rubber hose and plaster feet. Another wheelchair is covered in rubber teats. “Nil by Mouth,” the work of a young man who required multiple revisions of intraventricular shunts, is a sci-fi angular character with an intravenous giving set for a head, a drip-stand body, and metal rod limbs, all wreathed in red and blue plastic tubing. A giant doctor towers over all: a white coat suspended on stilts made from crutches. Inside the coat the doctor's body is a tangled mass of wires and his dangling hand are inflated rubber gloves.

    Many of the hospital staff found the raw emotions expressed in these sculptures disturbing. The teenagers themselves, however, evidently enjoyed breaking one of the taboos of hospital life, by adapting medical equipment into art forms. They were able to poke fun at their torturers (the medical staff) and the instruments of torture (the equipment), and to express the frustrations of being chronically ill.

    Art Injection Two, a second collaborative project requested by the adolescents, aimed at improving the mundane appearance of the adolescent ward and its surroundings. A flat, semicircular brick area outdoors has been transformed into a painted lily pond, a spartan low wall has become a kaleidoscope of coloured bricks, a clay tile wall mural provides enjoyment for all, including visually impaired children. Involvement in this environmental arts project changed the adolescent patients from passive consumers into active participants.

    The hospital has been visually transformed, but the patients too have been transformed. The personal relationships developed with the art students and the joy of creativity have improved their self esteem, and with it their health has improved noticeably. To quote David Bennett, head of the department of adolescent medicine, “Because they feel better, they heal better.”

    The therapeutic potential of art, “the healing of art,” has long been known, and occupational therapists have helped many chronically ill patients. The use of a full time artist and the collaboration with the local college of art are important initiatives, which could be adapted for patients of all ages. Art Injection will be a useful resource for other hospitals, health centres, artists, government departments, and community organisations planning to set up similar programmes.

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