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.
“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.
“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.