Ron Irwin loves a good yarn and a good laugh. Art & Soul gifts him both, as he sits in St Matthew’s Anglican Church Fellowship Hall with a canvas, brush and palette of paint – art is created and his soul embraces a lightness of being that lifts the darkness of living with post traumatic stress disorder and depression.
Art & Soul recently celebrated its first birthday. How did you become one of its founding participants, and how does it help you?
The idea of an art class to help people with post traumatic stress disorder and depression first came to my attention when I was president of Wingham RSL Sub-branch. Artist Ron Hindmarsh and Jillian Oliver delivered a presentation to explain what art can do to help people with trauma and I immediately thought, what a wonderful idea. I’ve been an art lover all my life and a bit of an artist – I won’t say that I’m any good, and neither will anyone else!
I’m almost 80, ex-Navy with 35 years’ service and have post traumatic stress disorder. I can’t tell you the traumas, because I don’t talk about them. In years past you never talked about these things, but now we can. Some of us have seen some pretty bad things in our lives, and helping us to cope and heal is what this group is about. All of us are ex-servicemen or ambos, police and fire brigade, and we welcome anybody.
While we paint, we tell a lot of stories, and a lot of lies, and laugh a lot. I think it’s one of the better things I’ve seen in my life to help people to cope with trauma and depression. Ron and Jillian are absolutely marvelous; they’ve introduced us to different painting mediums and forms of art – some people have got some talent, and some people have got none, but anybody can produce a picture.
Over the year we’ve developed a bond and care for each other. Late last year I found out I had cancer in the big toe on my right foot. I’ve had an operation and lost that toe, and these people in their own way have helped me through that – one bloke calls me “Half-a” or “Six Inches”, because I’ve only got half a foot! That’s the type of thing that’s helping me through this – the friendship and the laughter. I’ve got ongoing problems with black bone or dead bone in my foot, and we don’t know where that is going to lead, but these people will be there for me.
Shocking physical trauma, the loss of her career, and navigating the challenging journey towards healing led Jillian to embrace art to help with emotional and physical pain, and to create Art & Soul. What happene,d and what have you learned?
I was a Police Officer in Taree and during a cannabis eradication program in the mountains, I was driving my car and it rolled 175 metres down a mountain near Dingo Tops. As a result of numerous injuries, I developed Complex Regional Pain Syndrome. The accident happened eight years ago, and at the end of May it will be three years since I had my arm amputated.
There were so many traumas. I was a very active person, and the radical lifestyle change impacts you mentally, as well as physically. Watching my two boys play sports was hard, because I wanted to be out there playing, and the other big thing was not having a job I absolutely loved. You get to a point where you do feel sorry for yourself for a while, but then you go – you know what? I’m not dead, I am still here for the kids, I can still do things.
Everyone has something that’s impacted them. I had trouble with depression and PTSD, and a lot of people who get diagnosed with PTSD or depression can feel overwhelmed, but you have to look past the diagnosis, because it is not who you are; it is something you are living with.
It was a friend who suggested that I try painting to relax, and as I also had to learn how to go from being right-handed to left-handed, I thought painting could help with co-ordination and finer touches like writing and cooking meals.
Why did you decide to create a way to bring art to other ex-servicemen and emergency services personnel?
A few years ago I was speaking to the founders of the Australian National Veterans Art Museum in Melbourne about programs they run for veterans and families that are struggling with PTSD, depression or injuries from being in service. They suggested that I do something for people in emergency services, but at the time I was still angry with what had happened, so I didn’t immediately act.
You feel like you’ve been dumped, because Policing is a bit of a family. It went from 12-hour shifts to nothing, and because everyone is busy, you kind of get forgotten – you feel loss with that, it’s another layer of grief, and that took me a little bit to work through. My time with Ron and art helped me to do that, and so when chatting with him, I shared that I would like to try to do this and asked for his help.
Ron Hindmarsh is an acclaimed artist who has been teaching in the Manning Valley since 1982. He cherishes Jillian and proudly shares his experience of how Art & Soul is transforming lives.
Jillian came to me for classes about six years ago, and a few years ago we decided to do this together. I am so proud of her. We’ve had two exhibitions supported by Taree Craft Centre, and they’ve been exceptional.
Art & Soul matters in so many ways. These guys have done so much for the community and the country, and now they are laughing, talking, and creating … they are coming out of their cocoon.
Reverend Brian Ford opens St Matthew’s Anglican Church Fellowship Hall fortnightly for Art & Soul. He celebrates its success, and says the parish council will do whatever it can to support the group.
Art & Soul sits under the umbrella of the church for insurance purposes, and they have access to our facilities if they need to, or want to move around the district.
I try to keep at arm’s length, but they know where I am if they want to have a chat. These are community facilities given for God’s purposes, and this is a pretty good God purpose.
During a conversation with one of the participants, I asked him if it was worth putting in the effort to come to the classes. This big, burly man almost teared up and he said, this makes me want to get out of bed on days when I don’t want to get out of bed. That is the highest commendation you could ever seek to hear.
Art & Soul is held fortnightly at St Matthew’s Anglican Church Fellowship Hall in Bent Street, Wingham from 9:30am to 12:30pm. For further information, contact Ron Hindmarsh on 6553 1203.