How art changes lives

Becoming an artist can be a liberation, a catharsis, a source of meaning, life satisfaction or existential peace.
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“It’s something that’s so primal and so deep that it’s satisfying… it’s really difficult to explain but it feels right. It’s just the knowing that this is why I am here this is what I do, it’s perfect.”

Sarah Andrews nails for me what is, as she says, a really difficult thing to explain, the reason why a person is driven to create art. I especially think that Sarah, a graphic designer and street artist from the mid-west town of Geraldton, Western Australia, is spot on when she says, ‘It’s something that’s so primal and so deep that it’s satisfying’. The more creative people I speak to and spend time with the more I believe that the process of creating art somehow reaches within us and into our past connecting us to what we’ve always done and how we’ve always been. It’s a feeling so many of us aspire to. Where we feel weightless, where time stops and where special things happen beyond our physical or conscious control. You could say it’s instinct, and, it has the power to change us.

Comments like Sarah’s I heard again and again during production of the How Art Changed My Life series for the ABC. I was brought in to guide the video project for the Radio Multiplatform & Content Development Department and worked with a small team of ABC cross media reporters stationed in many different locations across the country. I travelled from Perth to Bega, Albury-Wodonga, Melbourne, Alice Springs, Geraldton and Broome and came back feeling like I had some kind of reawakening and with a firm belief that our lives can be transformed through creative endeavours where we communicate our thoughts, feelings and ideas.

This is the true meaning of art as I see it, a form of communication that connects directly with our souls and has energy and a power to influence, heal, and change. To me art has never been just for the talented and gifted few exhibiting in high profile galleries and attracting critical praise and huge dollars. Although this is part of the art world I understand and am interested in, in general I see that art is for everyone.

When planning the series and coming up with a theme to explore I was looking at it from the position of a storyteller. Certainly I was interested in producing a series about art but I wanted to tell inspiring human stories as well and not get bogged down in artist profiles and processes or critiques that in the end would only attract an art-interested audience. I saw the art as being merely the window through which we learn of someone’s personal journey. The guiding force was that story is king and having always been intrigued by a person’s turning point in life this is what I wanted to focus on. I’m interested in hearing about the things that make people who they are? What choices they’ve made or positions they’ve found themselves in that have led them to where they are and shaped who they are. For the artist these choices often come with an element of risk and in many cases bravery.  

Take Sarah again, for example, a spatial scientist who gave up her promising career to become a designer and artist living in a country town. This came after being involved in a shipwreck near Mexico during a holiday, an experience that renewed her artistic desires. Or David Giles from Fremantle who threw in a wonderful job as a tour guide in the picturesque south west of WA to have a go at becoming a full time painter, the turning point, nearly drowning after being caught in a full on rip during a quick dip on one of his tours. While being dragged out to sea David made a promise, that if he survived he would finally become an artist.

All of these people came to art through many different and profound circumstances, this being the first change, but it’s living life through art that has actually changed them and in some cases those around them.

Painter, sculptor and poet Charmaine Green from Mullewa in WA, who started making art as a form of healing after the passing of her father and now, emboldened by the power of art, uses it to express her views and challenge the impact mining and mining companies are having on regional and remote communities. Art has not only changed her life but she hopes her art might even change others.

Literally art has been the savior for many of the artists we spoke to. Part-time Alice Springs resident and landscape painter Barbara Stuart came back to art, her childhood love, after a life of pain tormented by horrible past memories and later a battle with cancer. After hitting a cross roads she decided she needed to do something for herself and get back into her art. Life it seems has never been better and Barbara says with a smile ‘I think I’ll just keep painting till I drop and they can put my paintbrushes on my coffin’.

Similarly art may have saved the life of Michael Laubli from Wodonga in Victoria. He never expected sell out shows when he was tinkering in his shed turning car engine parts into welded sculptural characters,  his father said that ‘he always thought that what he made wasn’t worth much, if you go back fifteen years he was suicidal, totally shattered, but all of a sudden he see’s that people actually appreciate what he does’ . With the right support and a willingness to improve his mental health Michael has blossomed into a brilliant and prolific artist.  ‘What changed now is that he actually found something where he can express himself, he found his niche if you like and that’s the big difference,’ said his Dad. Michael is making the most of his new found success and says simply, ‘This is what I need to do’.

In looking back at the shared experiences we had making these videos with the talented and dedicated ABC Local Radio cross media reporters I only wish we could do more of them. I didn’t expect this idea had so much carry and that we would see such a diverse range of stories found by the reporters in their local communities and there were so many more we could have covered. I was certain that a great majority of the stories would look at art being used as a form of therapy given the title of the series, but we explored many different angles interpreting the statement of How Art Changed My Life.

It was also fantastic to meet people who are doing what they love. But don’t think for a second that’s how it was planned. Many of us need a bit of a push to follow our hearts and in a lot of cases that comes from pain and loss. This doesn’t mean I somehow think that art is the answer for everyone or even that art is the only realm through which people can reach these ancient feelings. People tap into it through music, cooking, surfing, faith, parenthood, writing and more, but the change through art that I have seen is hard to ignore. Art can be so many different things to different people. It communicates and connects and takes us back to who we are.

I’ll end on a quote from Craig Cameron, a sculptural painter from the South Coast of NSW. ‘Well it’s kind of like I didn’t know life until I knew art…like my own life a sense of self, it’s an identity…I’m at pure total peace with art.’

Isn’t that beautiful? I’ve been picking up my brushes and sitting in my back shed more often since producing this series.

View and comment on How Art Changed My Life at the ABC Arts website.

The project was commissioned through the ABC Radio Multiplatform Content Development Fund. Brendan Hutchens is a freelance TV and Video Producer and Director of WA based production company VAM MEDIA.

Brendan Hutchens
About the Author
Brendan Hutchens is a freelance TV and Video Producer and Director of WA based production company VAM MEDIA.
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