Flowers are known for cheering people up, but rarely do we think about them as having the power to change lives. Dr Catherine Bell has arranged a unique bouquet of fine art, folks and flowers, writes Sara Coen.
Wheelchairs and walking frames pose no obstacle as a group of palliative care patients, volunteers and nursing staff gather at the foot of the Flower Tower.
Their faces beam as they gaze skyward in awe of what they have achieved. The Flower Tower soars more than four metres from the ground at the Substation Community Access Gallery in Newport, Melbourne. Hundreds of paper petals, ablaze with colour, exude a remarkable resilience, despite the delicate nature of their design.
The exhibition, entitled The Gathering, showcases a community-art project facilitated by ACU visual arts lecturer, Dr Catherine Bell, as part of her yearlong artist residency, established by St Vincent’s Hospital, and located at Caritas Christi Hospice in Kew. Bell’s aim was to combine her own studioled research and meaningful engagement with the palliative day care patients at the hospice. The project was designed to build momentum, as participants would see the Flower Tower filling with handmade blooms and be motivated to make their own flowers to embed in the tower.
“The idea was to foster collaboration and connectivity where the individual creative contribution of each flower is vital to the larger communal artwork,” said Bell. “Another important aim was that the Flower Tower’s public display in a contemporary art space would help to demystify what happens in the hospice setting.”
Caritas Christi Hospice provides a program of palliative day care for people living in mthe community who have a progressive life-threatening illness – yet are well enough to enjoy a few hours away from home. It is a welcoming space where people of different generations, genders and backgrounds meet to share food, mingle socially, and voluntarily engage in a range of activities.
“The title The Gathering is multilayered,” said Bell, “as it represents the coming together of a community of patients, staff members, volunteers, families and friends, who would literally gather around a table each week at the hospice to assemble the flowers for the tower.”‘ Gathering’ is also an action that describes Bell’s collection of art materials, video footage and research data during the course of the residency.
“The flower-making became a vehicle for social engagement and interaction. The various stages of the cutting, rolling and folding of the materials generally coincided with a lot of laughter and sharing of stories, memories and life experiences,” said Bell. “The participants in the project have been so inspirational.
These are people who are facing an incredible degree of uncertainty in their lives – yet remain open to learning new skills, contributing their time to make the flowers, and teaching newcomers how to do it.” Caritas Christi Palliative Day Care Director, Margaret Mudford, said the project has been extremely beneficial to the clients involved.
“They were able to get into the moment and forget about their sickness and pain for a while. It brought the group closer together, and has generated a community spirit between them,” said Mudford. “It has given everyone a bright new focus and perspective on the sorts of things they can accomplish, despite their illness. This project has taught me that art is about so much more than just pretty pictures.”
Sixty-year-old Robert Clayton said that participating in the project has helped him to believe in himself.
“This is the first time I’ve ever had anything in a gallery, and I never thought I was any good at art. My doctor gave me three months to live, and that was eighteen months ago, and I’m still going strong, and setting on with things,” said Clayton. “The Flower Tower has kept us all going, and I can’t believe what we’ve managed to achieve. I never thought we’d finish it, but we actually did.”
Another meaningful collaboration evolved when Bell befriended eighty-year-old nun, Sister Mary Barry, who has been volunteering at the hospice for more than 20 years. She noticed Sister Mary’s ritual of meandering through the passageways at the hospice, and related her silent ritual of tending to the patients’ flowers, to a spiritual meditation on death and dying.
“I researched the history of St Vincent’s Hospital and how it was founded by the Sisters of Charity and knew it was important to capture Sister Mary as part of the project. She represents the lineage of nuns who continue to devote their lives to caring for the sick and vulnerable in the community,” said Bell.
“I filmed Sister Mary going about her daily activities at the hospice and the video footage is an integral aspect of the final exhibit. It provides a context, as it archives the setting and ambient sound of the hospice.”
It was important to the participants that when the Flower Tower was finally presented to the public, that the people who created it, and the place where it was created, was made explicit.
There was a shared understanding that this totem memorialised all of those suffering with cancer. “People have got to be made aware of why it was done, and that we are all fighting cancer.
"It shouldn’t be made just for the people who are doing it, It should be made as a monument to all the people who have died of cancer,” said Clayton.
“I think that there are people who would love to do it, although they are not well enough to come here and take part. It’s not that they don’t want to, it’s just because they are too ill, and that is the only reason.”