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(Getty Images/Milkos)

Not everyone considers themselves an artist. Yet, drawing or painting is something we’ve all dabbled in as children. Studies have found that expressing our imagination through artistic means is both mentally and physically beneficial as we age.

Amy Chien-Yu Wang
Published on
Wednesday, August 15, 2018 - 11:40
File size
6 min 39 sec

Halina Pokora had loved art as a child in Poland, but the practicalities of life meant that she didn’t pick up the paint brush again until this year after raising three children and now being a grandmother of four.

“I wanted to go to the art school but my parents were very concerned and they said art is not giving you money for the bread so they sent me to the electronic[s] college. So I finished the electronic[s] college. I had children then we came to Australia.”

At 59, Halina works as a drafter in Brisbane. Her job involves precise technical drawings and gives her great satisfaction. Art, on the other hand, transports her into another world which she says she’s been waiting for her entire life.

“My profession is a drafter but I’m a computer drafter so not really much by hand drafting but the drawings with landscape of people features actually interest me very much and I love it. After about 40 years I’m going back to doing something what I’ve loved as a little kid.”

Having only started water colour painting this year, Halina doesn’t consider herself a talented artist, but there’s a magic about the medium that captures her imagination.

“I’m not very good at all, like, I’m learning. I’m still learning how to mix the colours but it’s like when I’m doing the painting or I do some sketches, I switch off from the whole entire my life. It’s good, it’s very relaxing. I love it.”

Her teacher, Szczepan Urbanowicz shares a similar story where his passion also took a long break due to fear of the unknown.

“Probably that same sort of voices were whispering in my ear that it was a hard journey being an artist and making a good living from it was difficult so I suppose that was one of the considerations that I chose to do architecture instead.”

After over twenty years as an architect and illustrator, designing buildings for cities throughout Asia, Szczepan decided it was time to get his hands dirty again. This time, challenging himself to try what’s considered an unforgiving medium compared to oil and acrylic painting.   

“Water colour was right at the top of the list of difficult medium to control to understand and that's probably why I’m still pursuing it. Every day is a buzz and the way I enjoy painting water colour is on plein air which is going outdoors, out into nature whether it’s an urban environment or whether it’s out in a park or in the coast or in the forest somewhere.”

Even at 52, Szczepan’s eyes light up when he talks about painting.

“Look, I get up with a lot of energy and zest and eagerness. The first thing I do I look out the window to see what sort of light there is because the best time for me to paint is either early in the morning or late in the afternoon when the quality of the light outdoors has a warm glow - whether you’re getting up in the morning and I look over Brisbane and see whether it's a misty day or a full on bright orange morning, I’m up and I’m out with my kit into the car, say ‘good morning’ to my wife, leave her a coffee on the kitchen bench and I’m out.”

There is never a one answer or a one singular direction when one starts to paint. But what it does do is it starts to open up doors and opportunities like in life. If you don't try, you never know but once you've tried, you get some form of excitement or energy.

This joyful state is what arts health advocate Margaret Rolla wants patients with dementia to experience at aged care facilities. Through her 12-week Drawing Memories Program at two New South Wales nursing homes, she discovered remarkable outcomes in people with both physical and cognitive disabilities. 

“People who were impaired in some way either sight-impaired or hearing, some people couldn't talk properly through stroke problems, limitations, they could all have their own voice in that visual way. They could get across their feelings through art making. I found people with dementia, in particular, the ones who were very agitated; they became calmer while they were doing art.”

She shares the story of an elderly couple who were able to reinvigorate their relationship through art. The husband used to go to his own art lessons and would take his wife who had advanced dementia with him.   

“And she’d just sit at the back of the group and not participate at all and just stare blankly into the walls. And this just went on for years. He came to me this day and he said the previous week she actually sat with him and she drew spontaneously on her own and it was of a water tank from their property they used to live on and he was just absolutely like bowled over and thought this was incredible and so he ended up buying her own art materials for home and she was participating with him every week.”

The idea of the project came about after observing her mother’s rapid decline in her later years at a nursing home.

“To this date I blame it on the depression that she went into. Because there was just nothing there to stimulate her at all. That just had this burning ember inside of me all these years. When my father actually went into aged care and I was looking around and seeing the activities or lack of just these blank faces and I thought there’s got to be more to end of life.”  

As for Szczepan, these days, he has found a beautiful balance between his architectural work, water colour painting and helping others like Halina explore their creative sides. He encourages people to discover a part of themselves they may never have known before through any form of art.

“There is never a one answer or a one singular direction you know when one starts to paint. But what it does do is it starts to open up doors and opportunities like in life. If you don't try, you never know but once you've tried, you get some form of excitement or energy, you know, it just builds momentum for other things in your life as well.”