Art As Therapy

Sydney (Don) Featherstone's Legacy

Don Featherstone's background in medical aid accompanied by his artistic interest influenced his view on patient care. While working in the wards, Don felt his medical training was inadequate and could do little to help the patients. He observed that some of the patients would take a pencil and draw on cards and with encouragement become thoroughly fascinated. This led him to believe that artistic therapy might be beneficial to the patients' health.

Don researched the use of art therapy in other institutions to find it was primarily used as a diagnostic tool. Although structured group therapy was new to Baillie Henderson and Occupational Therapists were very thinly spread, Don proposed the revolutionary idea of group art therapy sessions. His idea was rewarded with two groups of patients - patients with a very low mentality and those who were in for a short term.

With this encouragement Don returned to Baillie Henderson Hospital in 1977 as a volunteer, conducting group art therapy sessions with patients in their wards. Don travelled to the hospital twice a week with a case of brushes and paints, to patiently conduct sessions with the hospital residents. Don describes his method:

"My idea was to get a fairly large board and have them draw by connecting dots. I would have a picture in my mind of a building, a tree or a river; I would put a dot at the place where the tree should be started and a dot where it should be finished and then have the patients draw the connecting line. I would call each patient out and get them to draw from one dot to the next… When the outline was drawn and they had some idea of how to go about it, we started to paint at least eighty percent, they would have a picture that they had painted for themselves to hang in their ward".

The sessions typically lasted an hour, with patients returning to the painting two or three times and Don adding the finishing touches. The painting would then be framed and hung in the ward for the patients to enjoy.

Some patients began to show an interest in painting, responding to the beautiful colours and particularly to painting pictures of animals such as horses.
"One day I turned my back to mix paint for them when two patients came up to me, got hold of me and just said, 'Paint. Me paint!' That was the most gratifying experience I have ever had in art teaching".

Don was 80 years old when he retired as a hospital volunteer. The work he had done attracted the attention of general hospitals in Queensland, interstate and overseas who sought his advice for setting up similar teaching programs. Don was awarded the British Empire Medal in 1977 for his services to the mentally ill.

Don Featherstone's dedication to occupational therapy and change for patients at Baillie Henderson Hospital is still an inspiration to both patients and staff.