More than just art: Putting Macksville Hospital on the map

Hospitals used to be such perfunctory, clinical spaces - a sterile environment where it often seemed like comfort and emotional wellbeing took a back seat to the business of 'getting better'.

But the old science has given way to the new, which acknowledges that a sense of place, of belonging, along with stimulation of the senses, can be a very effective and important part of the healing journey.

"We now know the use of The Arts in health has positive impacts on medication dependence, hospital length of stay, and treatment stress. The Arts have also been shown to improve patient tolerance of symptoms and treatment, self efficacy, social inclusion, perceptions of care quality, and communication between patients and health professionals," the NSW Health and the Arts Framework report says.

Art has been recognised by NSW Health as beneficial to achieving good health outcomes for at least the last five years - since November 2015 when former NSW Health Minister Jillian Skinner announced a taskforce into Health and The Arts.

I do not want to just bring The Arts into Health, but I want to bring the emotion, power, creativity and spirit that come with it.

Former NSW Health Minister Jillian Skinner

Art has since been incorporated into the delivery of health services, as well as the design of new buildings.

And so it was with the new Macksville and District Hospital.

About six months after community consultation over the new hospital floor plans began in 2017, the Macksville Hospital Aboriginal Advisory Committee started to imagine how to fill the space with beauty and meaning.

"When we were looking at the plans we realised there was plenty of empty wall space in the hospital street. Then some bright spark came up with the idea of filling the actual 3D space near the roof," Committee Community Chair Ricky Buchanan said.

The National Aboriginal Design Agency, which comes under the banner of Saltwater Freshwater Arts Alliance, was brought on board to project manage the epic undertaking.

"I know it's a big project to fill the hospital, but I wanted community involved in it, because they're the ones that would be using the hospital. The more the community has connection to the building, the more comfortable they'll feel when they're there," Ricky said.

Acting General Manager of Saltwater Freshwater Jane Taverner said they were happy to embrace that part of the brief.

"We tried to involve as much of the community as we could," she said.

Gumbaynggirr Elders from Nambucca, Macksville and Bowraville, students from all three public high schools in the Valley, and all three Aboriginal Land Councils were involved in the project. As were the Bowraville Women's Group, the Macksville Country Women's Association, hospital staff and any interested community members.

After nearly a year of collaboration, five major artworks now adorn the hospital street.

The theme 'Juluum-nyarr Gaagal-gu' (from the mountains to the sea) was chosen in consultation with local Elders.

And that theme permeates through each of the works, and also the journey you must take to witness them all.

Collaborative wall artwork

Photo by Jay Black from 'And the trees photography'

Photo by Jay Black from 'And the trees photography'

Workshops for this major piece began at each of the high schools in November last year.

Elders were invited to mentor the students - each sharing stories about their childhoods, growing up on country, dreamtime stories, and the idea behind the theme.

Students were then asked to draw sketches in response to the stories and their own lived experiences, with support from Gumbaynggirr artists.

"Some kids were so inspired they drew four or five artworks," Ricky said.

Over 60 pieces were created in total. But 14 winning drawings were chosen through an anonymous selection process.

Each of the successful young artists was paid for the rights to the use of their drawings.

"I was glad they were officially recognised like that, and their names put on the storyboard describing the finished piece," Ricky said.

The individual drawings were then scanned and a graphic designer created a collage with them, in line with vigorous community consultation.

"Because there were so many elements, and some works were a perfect little design piece on their own, we decided to keep them as a separate piece," Jane said.

These are the pieces that feature in the circles - the use of which is highly significant too.

"The circle is much more in alignment with Aboriginal culture. And in order to maintain the integrity of each individual element and the theme, a square frame just wouldn't have fit," she said.

"In the end we've come up with something much more contemporary and visually interesting."

This piece was the only one ready to be installed when the hospital opening was moved forward from October to May. It was fitted the week before patients were moved across.

Unfortunately due to COVID-19 protocols the grand opening which was rightly deserved was not able to go ahead.

But each of the featured young artists was given the chance to see the finished piece after it was mounted.

The big reveal. Photo by Jay Black from 'And the trees photography'

The big reveal. Photo by Jay Black from 'And the trees photography'

"It was such a beautiful time watching those guys come in, wide-eyed, and see their drawings in this huge artwork," Jane said.

"If they're going to be growing up in the Valley and eventually bringing their children to see this, it just keeps building those family stories."

Ricky was blown away when he finally got the chance to see it for himself.

"Seeing the actual finished artwork - I was speechless. I sat there for 45 minutes in awe," he said.

Yarriabini Mountain

Photo by Jay Black from 'And the trees photography'

Photo by Jay Black from 'And the trees photography'

This piece is the first of four woven sculptures created to fill the internal loft space of the hospital street.

As you enter through the hospital doors, turn around and look up.

This piece represents the three peaks of Yarriabini (Yarahappinni) and the dreaming story of the Dunggirr Gagu (koala brothers).

But it also is a representation of the mountain ranges which hug our Valley to the west.

Three local leading lights in art were asked to guide these four major sculpture projects.

"We approached Aunty Lauren (Jarrett), Aunty Denise (Buchanan), and Jasmine (Stadhams) to be involved in steering and running as much of the weaving as possible," Ricky said.

Aunty Lauren Jarrett, Ricky Buchanan, Denise Buchanan and Jasmine Stadhams

Aunty Lauren Jarrett, Ricky Buchanan, Denise Buchanan and Jasmine Stadhams

Once concept designs were developed, sculptor John Van Der Kolk came on board to create the metal structures the weaving would sit upon.

Ricky said the physical process of weaving was possibly more important than the choice of weaving as an artistic medium for the sculptures.

Weaving in itself is a process of healing, it's a meditation - slow and steady - and it's a time for conversation and to talk through things.

Ricky Buchanan

"Some of the people weaving were hospital staff sometimes, and that helped to steer conversations around health.

"There were connections made between people who were sitting there doing the weaving."

Photo by Jay Black from 'And the trees photography'

Photo by Jay Black from 'And the trees photography'

Muurbay Bundani

This awe-inducing piece is something that has to be seen to be believed.

It stands at nearly four metres tall, with details so intricate you might get a sore neck from looking up discovering them all.

"In the beginning, the muurbay bundani (white fig tree, tree of life) was a giant tree, big enough to feed everyone," the description reads.

The story loosely goes that the tree was so large it fed different tribes, unbeknownst to all who used it for sustenance. When two clans discovered one another they fought over the tree until Yuludarla the Creator took it away.

Photo by Jay Black from 'And the trees photography'

Photo by Jay Black from 'And the trees photography'

"It teaches that greed is not beneficial for our tribe's wellbeing," the description reads.

In this sculpture you can clearly see three birds lifting the tree up towards the heavens.

Some of the pieces were so large that storing them between workshops was a logistical issue.

A local plumber, Greg Burton, came to the rescue and offered a spare warehouse to house the sculptures.

"That was another example of how the community has stepped in to make this all happen," Jane said.


Photo by Jay Black from 'And the trees photography'

Photo by Jay Black from 'And the trees photography'

The waterhole is the third piece you come across after entering the hospital, and is directly before the cafe.

The sculpture features Gawnggan the Creator Mother as a brolga and lots of freshwater creatures, including the long-necked turtle.

Photo by Jay Black from 'And the trees photography'

Photo by Jay Black from 'And the trees photography'


The final sculpture in the hospital street is the largest and possibly most striking of all.

It is an almost life-size, woven sculpture of a whale and her calf, and it sits directly before the entrance to the maternity unit.

Whales have multiple layers of cultural significance for the Gumbaynggirr and many other Indigenous nations.

But one symbolic layer to this piece is the migration journey that gurruja takes to give birth; she swims down our coastline, belly heavy, and then swims back up with calf in tow.

Expecting mothers will make a similar journey when they venture to Macksville Hospital before returning with their newborns.

Ladies from Macksville's CWA helped contribute to this piece with squares of knitting.

"We approached them and they said yes straight away," Jane said.

Aunty Lauren, Denise and Jasmine then pulled all the pieces of knitting and weaving from the community into this epic sculpture.

NSW Health documented the process. You can watch it here:

The four sculptures were finally installed at the end of August. And the response from those who have seen the works in place has been glowing.

"The outcomes were beyond what we ever thought possible. We've done weaving workshops, and worked with weavers, but nothing like on this scale," Jane said.

"I think the result is a real testament to the talent of the three women who led the weaving project. The woven pieces are ones you'd expect to see in a gallery - and we have them here in Macksville. So that's pretty cool."

The hospital is proud as punch to be able to display them too.

"The artwork, and the stories behind each piece, is a source of great pride for our hospital," Macksville District Hospital Executive Officer/Director of Nursing Ray Green said.

"From the moment this concept was put forward, we could see it would be about so much more than the finished works. This has been a wonderful journey for our community, our staff and our patients and it really is everything we had hoped for, and more.

When the artwork was put in place at the hospital our staff were absolutely enthralled. We were literally stopped in our tracks, looking up and admiring the incredible pieces and learning more about the rich culture of our district.

And the learning won't stop there.

The Macksville Hospital Aboriginal Advisory Committee has an ongoing role in the future of the hospital.

Ricky, who was recently awarded 'Volunteer of the Year' by the Mid North Coast Local Health District, is hoping this will lead to more comprehensive cultural exchanges between community and health services.

Bilingual signs have also been installed throughout the hospital precinct, in consultation with Muurbay Language Centre.

And he hopes to have a hand in designing more localised cultural awareness training for hospital staff.

But for now, he's just elated to see years of imagination, effort and collaboration come together so succinctly.

"I'm really proud of everyone who was involved and of having a part in such an amazing bunch of sculptures and artworks," he said.

"It showcases what we can do when community consultation is done properly."

Ray agrees: "The heart of this project has been the engagement with the community. It has been such a meaningful journey and we can't thank those who were involved enough for their time, talent and dedication."

Unfortunately COVID rules still apply, so only people with a reason to be at the hospital currently get the opportunity to view these masterpieces.

But soon enough, the whole community will also get a chance to celebrate what has been created.

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