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Using art to connect sorry business with healing at Forensic Medicine

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16th December, 2023

These beautiful painted leaves help families mourning the unexpected or unexplained death of someone close. But they’re also helping to heal the women who paint them.

In a sun-filled room near the shores of Lake Mac­quar­ie a group of First Nations women gath­er to paint, share sto­ries and food, and most of all, to sup­port each other.

The Nikin­pa art group began as a short-term art ther­a­py pro­gram, but sev­er­al years lat­er it’s still going strong, thanks to the women who say it’s help­ing to change their lives for the better.

Aun­ty Bren­da Simon is a proud Wirad­juri woman from the small town of Gulargam­bone in Cen­tral West NSW. All sev­en of Brenda’s chil­dren were tak­en from her by gov­ern­ment author­i­ties in the 1970s, and her sto­ry is now the sub­ject of a pow­er­ful new doc­u­men­tary, The Last Daugh­ter, on Net­flix.

Aun­ty Bren­da attends the art group each week and says paint­ing leaves has helped build con­nec­tions in her community.

An elderly First Nations woman stands in a garden wearing a black shirt with red, yellow and white Aboriginal designs.
Wirad­juri woman, Aun­ty Bren­da Simon says the art group helps to keep her con­nect­ed to the local First Nations community.

“It just gives you that good feel­ing just to come in and sit down, just to paint leaves and get your mind going. I just love it,” she said.

Aun­ty Jill Jes­sop is a Wail­wan woman, also from Cen­tral West­ern NSW, and says the group pro­vides an impor­tant gath­er­ing place for the women, as well as a chance to cre­ate some­thing that makes a big dif­fer­ence in the lives of others.

“It’s a safe place for all women, it’s just been amaz­ing to see how much the women have grown. It’s giv­en them a pur­pose,” Aun­ty Jill said.

The women col­lect the gum leaves either from the local New­cas­tle area, or from across region­al NSW when they trav­el back home to country.

The leaves are then dried for sev­er­al weeks and brought into the Nikin­pa art room at Toron­to where the women paint intri­cate designs in a rain­bow of colours.

A First Nations woman stands on a sunny walkway.
Aun­ty Jill Jes­sop says the Nikin­pa Art Group is a safe space for women and has helped them heal and grow together.

“The pick­ing of the gum leaves is a thing, find­ing the right gum leaves. We’re always out in the bush look­ing,” explains Aun­ty Jill.

“A lot of us use the tra­di­tion­al sym­bols, but there’s no right or wrong way, there’s no sto­ry, real­ly to our leaves. It’s the pur­pose of why we do them, that’s our story.”

“A conversation starter”

The gum leaves they paint end up at NSW Health Pathology’s foren­sic med­i­cine facil­i­ty in New­cas­tle, where spe­cial­ist social work­ers sup­port fam­i­lies who are griev­ing after an unex­pect­ed death report­ed to the Coroner.

Fam­i­lies are encour­aged to place the leaves with their per­son and can also take a leaf home to remem­ber them and their ongo­ing connection.

“It’s a real con­ver­sa­tion starter,” said Dan­ny Nugus, Senior Foren­sic Med­i­cine Social Work­er. (pic­tured below – back row, sec­ond from left)

“You get to know the per­son, even if the fam­i­ly are unable to get to New­cas­tle and we’re just talk­ing over the phone. I’ll talk to them about the leaves, and ask what sort of leaves do you think they’d like? They might say, ‘well he was a mad Rab­bitohs fan’, and we’ll find them a leaf with those colours.

“There might be a leaf design with a par­tic­u­lar num­ber of cir­cles, match­ing the num­ber of sib­lings that per­son had, or styles and pat­terns that fit with where they and their mob are from, what their totem is. Each leaf is as unique and pre­cious as the per­son who paint­ed it and the per­son who the leaf finds,” he said.

The leaves pro­vide an impor­tant con­nec­tion for griev­ing First Nations fam­i­lies but are also respect­ful­ly accept­ed by non-Indige­nous families.

For one of the women at the Nikin­pa art group, the leaves were a wel­come sight when she was con­front­ed with the sud­den death of a rel­a­tive and vis­it­ed the New­cas­tle foren­sic med­i­cine facility.

“Not long ago I had to go into foren­sics as a per­son­al expe­ri­ence myself, and we had to say our good­byes,” said Bon­ny Roberts, a Moandik woman from South Australia.

“I went into the fam­i­ly room and here was a bas­ket of our leaves all paint­ed up. Just the warmth of the whole expe­ri­ence of that, it didn’t feel so clinical.

“We had leaves to place with Pop and it was amaz­ing to pick them out. It was just real­ly per­son­al. I’ve seen it from both sides now, and I couldn’t thank the ladies enough when I came back to Nikinpa.”

The art group is now pro­vid­ing art work­shops at schools in the Lake Mac­quar­ie area, teach­ing stu­dents to paint their own leaves.

“The kids get involved and we explain to them what the leaves mean and where they go,” said Bonny.

“We ask them at the end would you like to keep your leaf? Or would you like to donate it? And 90 per cent of them want to donate it, they say, ‘no we want to give it’ and it goes in the foren­sic box.”

NSW Health Pathology’s Foren­sic & Ana­lyt­i­cal Sci­ence Ser­vice Direc­tor Michael Symonds (pic­tured below – back row, far right) expressed his heart­felt thanks to mem­bers of the Nikin­pa art group for shar­ing their sto­ries and their artwork.

“The leaves offer com­fort and mean­ing to bereaved fam­i­lies at Foren­sic Med­i­cine, and we’re hon­oured to have this impor­tant con­nec­tion to the local Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ty,” Mr Symonds said.

A group of men and women outside a building with a Forensic Medicine sign.
Mem­bers of the Nikin­pa Art Group vis­it staff at New­cas­tle Foren­sic Med­i­cine, where their paint­ed leaves pro­vide com­fort to griev­ing families.



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