1 April 2022

Canberra artist inspired to draw on the art of healing

| Sally Hopman
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Five women painting

Erica Seccombe, centre, works with community members during one of the Campbelltown Hospital art project workshops. Photo: NSW Health.

When a family member was stricken with cancer, Erica Seccombe took one look at the grim colour and bad art on the hospital room walls and baulked.

How hard could it be, she thought, for patients to be surrounded instead by the beauty of nature?

The award-winning Canberra visual artist and senior lecturer at the Australian National University wanted to tap into the beauty of nature to help in the healing process.

“Nature, or the sense of being in contact with nature, can relieve some of the stress and unease that comes with a hospital experience,” Erica said.

She has since put this theory into practice with her largest commission to date; creating art throughout the soon-to-be-completed 12-floor Campbelltown Hospital.

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Known for her work aligning nature with art, Erica was approached in 2018 and asked to submit an expression of interest for the Campbelltown Hospital rebuild.

“When they contacted me the first thing I thought was OMG – it was my Utopian vision to do something like this. I was so ready, so primed.”

Although living in Canberra, Erica said she knew the Campbelltown region well having lived in Wollongong and Sydney.

But it was always going to be a time juggle with her work at the ANU and her other artistic and family commitments.

“Yes, there were times when I don’t remember having weekends,” she said.

Workers look at wall mural

Artist Erica Seccombe (left) checks on the mural’s progress at Campbelltown Hospital. Photo: Nat Williams.

To achieve her design goals, Erica sought the help of the people who would be using the new hospital – the Campbelltown community.

She conducted a series of workshops in the field, inviting people to draw the nature around them and bring those images into the hospital.

“I wanted to bring plants and nature into the project because I think it’s one of those threads that connects everyone to each other no matter what community they come from.

“We’ve brought people together to create works inspired by nature, to consider how we might transpose drawings of nature into the hospital infrastructure, like the walls, so it becomes a decorative element of the hospital but is very much part of the community as well.”

Erica said the workshops illustrated the community’s connection to the natural environment. She worked with Indigenous elders Aunty Deirdre Martin and Aunty Glenda Chalker to better understand the region’s plants species.

Under their guidance, Erica developed a series of line art drawings of medicinally and culturally significant plants, with each plant creating a link to different hospital wards.

“In some ways I felt embarrassed that as a white woman I was drawing plants from the European perspective but Glenda told me it was important for people to know what the plants were,” she said.

Painting of gumnuts

One of the designs created during the Drawing from Nature workshops for the Campbelltown Hospital project. Photo: NSW Health.

Nicole Monks, an artist of Wajarri Yamaji, Dutch and English heritage, is also working with the Indigenous community on the hospital project and is being mentored by the elders to ensure cultural protocols are followed.

Erica said the ongoing message throughout the Drawing from Nature workshops was how the new hospital should feel for patients, staff and visitors “and the importance of nature in and around the wards was a strong connecting thread”.

The artworks will feature across all 12 levels of the new hospital, including as feature walls, with different plants on each level. A vast mural measuring 20 by 80 m will combine most of the plant images used throughout.

The works will be mounted on vinyl with different subject matters suited to each area – for example, more calming art for quiet spaces.

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“For me, the biggest compliment came from the nurses and paediatric staff who said they loved the work in their area. They said they felt it was theirs – that’s just the best compliment,” Erica said.

“This project is different for me because it’s not like it’s an exhibition, my exhibition. It’s not my art. That’s probably why I felt so anxious. But when one of the paediatric nurses said to me they’d like to have the art on their wall at home, that was the best thing.”

Erica, who won the Waterhouse Natural Science Art Prize in 2018 for her work Metamorphosis 2016, said the Campbelltown project was her largest to date and one of the most enjoyable.

In the early workshops, she said the first thing people would say to her was, “I don’t draw”. But within minutes of having a paintbrush in hand and a plant to draw in front of them, “all self-consciousness and fear dissipated as each individual’s creative spirit is revealed”.

The Campbelltown Hospital is scheduled to open in May.

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