The Dax Centre

What’s in a tree? Melbourne’s best kept secret is at The Dax Centre

24 September 2019

Content warning: mental illness, trauma, depression

In your hurry to class you might have rushed past Australia’s only heritage-listed art collection. Tucked away in a quiet corner on the University of Melbourne’s Parkville campus sits over 16,000 artworks, one of only three collections in the world of its kind. “Someone once said to me that The Dax Centre was Melbourne’s best kept secret,” said director Charmaine Smith. Established in the early 1990s, the gallery features works created by people with a lived experience of mental-illness. The dedicated team at The Dax Centre are using these works to change the conversation around mental-health, a momentous task which they’re tackling one artwork at a time.

One of these conversation-changing works is of a tree. Unassumingly painted on brown butcher’s paper, the work features thick brush strokes dipped in what looks like children’s paint. Not to be dismissed at face-value, such tree paintings were typical of rudimentary psychology practices in Victoria during the 1950s, explained Education Officer Bec Knaggs. Back then, psychology patients were treated at clinical institutions where patients were prescribed the “Three Tree Test”. They painted a picture of a tree in the morning, afternoon and night, and their condition would be analysed from these paintings. Scrutinising details like how they drew a tree’s root system or the shape of branches, or painted leaves, therapists would ‘diagnose’ their patient’s symptoms. As a small group of gallery-goers gathered to listen to Knaggs’ explanation, one person in our group murmured to their partner, “but I don’t even draw a root system when I draw trees”.

My group of gallery-goers on this particular day were not originally there to see the artworks. We were design-curious folk who had arrived for Open House Melbourne, an architecture event that gives the public a glimpse into well-designed buildings. Whilst architecture initially seemed far removed from the Centre’s mental-health mission, it turned out that that was exactly the point. As director Charmaine Smith said: “By being part of Open House Melbourne, we’re opening up our audience and we hope that people know we’re here.” Our group was the perfect example: we came to admire the building’s soaring design, yet we stayed for the powerful stories and visual works on display. Education Officer Bec Knaggs said that unlike other art, the works in The Dax Centre are more like “private pages of someone’s journal”. Art gave a voice to those going through inexpressible upheavals, with grief reflected in images of unspeakable trauma and poetry, all displayed on the white gallery walls. The works are like a “window into the mind of the creator” said Knaggs. Poet Sandy Jeffs, who has works in the gallery’s current exhibition—Finding Our Words—agreed with this sentiment. “Mental-illness can rob you of so much, so to be able to create a poem from the depths of one’s imagination, is a blessing.”

Through these works, we learned the shocking figure that one-in-five people experience mental-illness. We openly discussed psychosis as a result of amazing embroidery works, and we chatted about trauma, prompted by colourful knitted chickens made in the aftermath of the Black Saturday bushfires. One intricate clay sculpture called “Happy Magnets” even taught us about transcranial magnetic stimulation—an approved treatment in Australia for depression—from which the artist found relief from her debilitating illness. The gallery was filled with questions and conversations and this experience was exactly what director Charmaine Smith was striving for. “We hope that people will learn a little bit more about mental-health and about the history of mental-health in Victoria,” she said. “And also, through that understanding, we can break down some of the stigma that still exists.”

In this way, the artworks at the Dax Centre don’t merely demand sympathy or benevolence. On many levels, it fills in the gaps of our awareness around mental-health. Through art, it opens the dialogue on complex issues. Issues that are hard to talk about but need to be discussed.

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Anyone looking for information, support and guidance from mental-health professionals can contact the SANE Help Centre on 1800 187 263 or from 10am-10pm AEST.

For anyone in crisis, call:

  • Lifeline 13 11 14
  • Suicide Call Back Line 1800 659 467
  • Mensline 1300 789 978
  • KidsHelpline 1800 551 800

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