Healing Colours Apr07

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Healing Colours

When my new nurse friend asked me if I would come and meet the patients at the dialysis hospital where she worked, I was stumped. We had met just a week ago at the local train station. I had told her that I was an artist and she told me that she once knew a painter who ran an art therapy program at one of the hospitals she had worked at. She asked me if I could do something similar for the old patients who came to her center for dialysis.

I had just moved to Sydney with my family and although I had my apprehensions ( I have no medical background,) I was willing to put in some hours as a volunteer. I thought it would be a fantastic way to do some service in the new community I had decided to call home.

My nurse friend introduced me to the patients the next week. Most of them were over 70 and would come to the hospital thrice a week for dialysis sessions. Her proposal was to get them to do some painting in the three hours that they spent in bed dialysing, rather than watching tv.

Four patients signed up for the art therapy sessions. Three were first time painters and were convinced that they would fail miserably at it! One was in her 90s and had been a bit of a painter in her youth but has given up on it more than 20 years earlier. She wasn’t too sure about her current skills either. However, with some pep talk and the hospital funding the program by buying us the best art supplies, we were off to a flying start.

As a rule. I never touched the patients’ paintings. Their work was entirely their own. I would extensively coach them verbally, through all the steps involved – mixing of colours, planning and composing paintings, and creating shapes and forms. I am an expressionist and I taught them to think and paint like one – with bold colours, bold swatches, bold forms. When one of them struggled with putting the details of a boat in, I asked her to put two patches down with deft strokes and squiggle the impression of a sail. I then held the painting a few feet away and asked her to look at it. She was amazed at how the patch looked like a perfect boat upon the waves!


As the months passed, the patients got better and better at painting, and more independent in their artistic expression. Some even advanced to painting from life – we would prop up flower arrangements and other objects on the tray table and they would interpret the subject in their own unique and individualistic way.

I thought the patients were absolutely inspiring. They had only one free hand with which to paint, and very limited mobility. One arm would always be hooked to the dialysis machine and they had to endure the discomfort of thick needles in their veins when they shifted positions. They would be prone, lying on their backs throughout the art sessions. It was in these circumstances that they produced the masterpieces that they did.

For me, as their teacher, it was an eye opening experience. I saw the power of art in giving hope and happiness. I saw how it improved the general mood of elderly patients, and how looking forward to the art therapy sessions added a rich dimension to their lives. I saw how effective art was in promoting a sense of healing not just for the patients but also for their carers and families.

I also discovered something new about myself – I always thought that I was hypersensitive and wouldn’t be able to handle the challenge of a hospital atmosphere without a healthy sense of emotional detachment. Although that was the case in the beginning, I was able to grow and mature in the two and a half years that I ran the sessions at the hospital. When two of the elderly patients who painted with me passed away, I was able to grieve without being paralysed by the loss.

The hospital has a whole wall dedicated to the work of the patients who painted. It is vibrant and inviting and filled with canvases of living, breathing, color. Every visitor to the hospital is drawn to it. It is a testimony to the hope, health and healing that creativity can unlock. And proof that that creativity is not bound by age or condition.

Oormila Vijayakrishnan is a painter, writer, poetess, rock pianist. She currently resides in Australia.

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