Remembrance (The Official Shrine Magazine)

April Vol 6 No1
Healing Arts

Art has long been associated with the military. Within Australia’s military tradition the arts have played multiple roles: in recording Australia’s involvement in war, as the musical accompaniment to ceremonies and in the, lesser known, rehabilitation and recovery of the wounded, injured and ill.

The Australian National Veterans Arts Museum (ANVAM) is a charity established in Melbourne by art teacher and art therapist, Tanja Johnston, and her husband Mark, himself a veteran, to help restore the healing role of the arts for veterans. Through her work over the past 15 years, art therapy and arts engagement are gaining prominence in the serving and veteran community by addressing and supporting mental, social and physical health for veterans and families.

Tanja explains ‘Veterans are supported by ANVAM through art therapy and arts engagement. Art therapy is a recognised psychotherapeutic allied health profession that emerged in Australia, the United Kingdom and United States, largely from the military repatriation use of arts for recovery during the First and Second World Wars. Art therapy involves art-making in a therapeutic relationship witnessed by a qualified art therapist, with emphasis on the process rather than the product. A unique yet rewarding challenge is the way each generation of veterans has differing needs, from Second Word War veterans in their 90’s to recent veterans in their early 20’s.’

Afghanistan veteran, Michael Williams shares his story.

When I returned home from active service overseas, I was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder and a number of Anxiety disorders. This was on top of numerous physical injuries, some of which required surgery and ongoing physiotherapy to this day. My mental health deteriorated to such a degree I found myself hospitalised in a psychiatric ward for veterans and civilians alike. It was here I met art therapists Tanja Johnston and Jandy Paramanathan from ANVAM who conduct the art therapy program for inpatients.

At first I was hesitant and reluctant, unaware and oblivious to the rewards that their program and art itself possessed. My personal lack of experience in art caused me to feel uncertain in participating in any art therapy, uncertainty which manifested into fear and avoidance because of the unknown. Then ANVAM opened up my world to a new and different form of treatment to my mental health problems, art. Art therapy allowed me to limit the stimulus I was over exposed to due to my severe anxiety and heightened state of alertness. They really accommodated me by providing a relaxing atmosphere, in turn allowing me to channel my concentration on the creative process of art. No longer was I bound by any formal policies and procedures; a rigid way of life controlled by rules and guidelines long engrained and instilled in me by serving as a Defence member.

With art I could paint wherever, whenever, whatever and however I chose. The freedom and creativity was a new and exhilarating experience that reduced unhelpful thoughts and allowed me to express myself freely. Art takes time and I was unaware that brush stroke by brush stroke, I was not only being expressive and creative, but I was also processing that which I couldn’t do using words. Different types of art and techniques allowed me to express emotions and feelings and put me on a path of healing. The more I get involved in art the better I feel mentally, emotionally and sometimes even physically.

Art, to me, is truly an amazing ingredient to recovery and by expressing myself creatively my quality of life has improved dramatically. My stress has reduced, self-esteem and insight has increased and my emotions and behaviour are far more stable, comfortable and pleasant to live with than ever before.

I was a soldier but now I call myself an artist.

Iraq veteran Gordon Traill has also turned to the arts.

Iraq 2004, with what little down time I had, I found ‘a happy place’ by taking pictures of the ‘Diggers, dust storms, urban decay and the local population’. Viewing those images now evokes a bond and mateship with those Diggers that will never be broken. Capturing a time in your life when you know that life and death can come at any time. I didn’t know it at the time, photography provided a form of release for me in the deadliest city on earth at that time, Baghdad.

A few years later I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and was lost. I lost my job, identity, and my will to live and was struggling with family life. I had no focus except to get through each day. I wasn’t contributing to anything; family, society and became isolated in my own little word of nothing.

My wife suggested that I take up a hobby and she remembered the joy that photography gave me during my time in Iraq. It started with a trip to Hawaii with a small camera which then progressed to a larger camera. I felt I was contributing something and had a reason to live again. Photography has taken me to places that I never thought possible after being diagnosed with PTSD. It has taken me to third-world countries and soup kitchens, to documenting veteran issues and telling stories through the lens of my camera. Photography became my therapy to combat PTSD, I am now in a better place.

Gordon now proudly supports ANVAM as an Arts mentor. The Shrine of Remembrance aims to hold an exhibition of his work in 2017.

IMG_6191-2Kevin McLeod of Grand Designs said, Buildings have a powerful potential to heal. This is a rare place of healing, built in 1937 for WWI veterans, where over 1,000 survivors per week of all conflicts and battles from Gallipoli to Long Tan have come for rehabilitation support.

Quiet efforts over the past few years by a dedicated team to preserve this WWI related site from sale to developers, during this Centenary of WWI period, have been to provide a sustainable world’s best practice, Arts and health response to the growing challenges faced by veterans, for whom this place was built. We aim to make 310 SKR, once again, a place of supported healing for veterans with a shared lived experience of war and service.
Government currently spends $180 million on mental health; that clinicians themselves admit is only partially effective. Our political leaders and ex-service organisations have all called for more to be done. The Chief of Defence recently said more needs to be done outside the medical system to support veteran’s mental health. Frankly, something different needs to be done. At ANVAM, a unique charity dedicated to the Arts for the ADF and veterans, we emphasise innovation in service delivery; to change the paradigm while working collaboratively with Government, DVA and veteran communities for a common goal; the wellbeing and quality of life of our veteran survivors. Part of our approach to innovation is to learn from the first Australian’s, including our local Wurundjeri people, about the role of the Arts in creating community and their proud culture and identity. Thanks to this place the possibilities for learning and innovation are enormous; Books will be written, doctorates awarded and lives changed.

Applying the Arts to veteran’s mental and social health is not new. Our highly professional and qualified creative Arts facilitators have worked in clinical and community settings with survivors in their 90s through to family members in their early teens for over a decade now. Our person centred approach tailors facilitated Arts engagement that can and has been, for many, transformative. One young veteran, for example, wrote that he was a soldier and now calls himself an artist.

By providing hope, purpose, dignity and validation of service through facilitated Arts we are indirectly addressing social issues like homelessness and unemployment, particularly during times of transition. We are, in effect, putting into practice the words of one surgeon and elite sportsman, military leader and prisoner of war; Weary Dunlop when he said “give the troop’s access to the Arts so that they may have an interest in life”! Weary would have travelled past here on a daily basis after the war; and I can imagine how he would have wondered through those doors to check on the wellbeing of the survivors inside.

There are also many veterans whose experience of service has been extremely positive. Through the Arts we are able to celebrate their experiences and pay tribute to them too. Some of Australia’s most celebrated artists who have contributed enormously to Australia’s culture and identity, are also veterans or family members; Banjo Paterson, Sidney Nolan, Clifton Pugh, Bud Tingwell, Jack Thompson, Judith Durum, Anthony Field and Richard Flanagan to name a few. It was a veteran, Gordon Darling, who founded the National Portrait Gallery and eight veterans share 23 Archibald prizes for portraiture between them. Decorated naval veteran Ken Myer led the NGV for many years and our current Federal Arts Minister is a veteran. The Prime Minister’s recent public reflections on his veteran grandfather includes references to the Arts and the Defence Minister has said she was “Particularly encouraged to pursue her own interest in the Arts by her father, a veteran of WWII”; which is an opportunity we aspire to for all veterans. The last veteran to serve as Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, established our peak Arts body, the Australia Council; with whom we aim to establish a positive relationship.

While only slightly out of context, when Winston Churchill asked, “for so much what shall we repay?”, perhaps the answer is that we, as a nation, owe it to our veterans to given them a cultural place of their own. It is also, in part, an answer to the call of one young veteran, James Brown, in his book ANZAC’s Long Shadow, for a place for younger veterans to tell their stories. To achieve this ANVAM aims to create, here at 310SKR, that place for all veterans to feel that they can come and leave their mark; to tell their own story, authentically, on canvas or clay, in song or film, on stage or a page. We invite all veterans, young and old, to be involved and feel a part of this place that has already heard so many stories of survival, and will honour and hold dearly all of those yet to be told. And we ask for the generous help of all Australian’s in creating this place of healing, and celebration of survival, for our veteran community.


Over nine fortnights from early march to late June, ANVAM has been running a series of visual art workshops at the new Soldier On HQ on Royal Parade in Melbourne. Happily, participants have been generous enough to leave many of their gorgeous artworks to brighten the fresh walls of the designated art room at Soldier On, showcasing the various themes and materials that have been employed, from landscape to doodle art and collage to photography to paint. Each session has had its own character and energy, shaped by the shared concentration of the dynamically changing group. Often, apart from gentle music, there is silence as people enter their own imaginations, but there is also periodic conversation, mostly about the artwork or observations arising from it and as often giving voice to a sense of commonality and identification as to surprise or curiosity. A sense of pleasure and achievement has been a tangible end-note to each session so far – we love to hear people say ‘I never knew I could..’ and then immediately begin to plan their next piece: it inspires us in our personal artwork and in our work at ANVAM: a big thankyou to all our participants so far.