Secret Spaces: A Review of From Heart + Mind at the Dax Centre

26 August 2020

CW: mental illness, psychological and physical trauma. 

In challenging and uncertain times, art is a creative medium for staying on top of mental health and coming to terms with isolation and identity. 

This connection between art and mental health is the focus of From Heart + Mind, an exhibition which showed at the Dax Centre on the University of Melbourne Parkville campus last month. 

The youth-focused exhibition featured works from eleven multidisciplinary artists drawing on lived experiences of mental illness to challenge ideas about trauma, stigma, isolation and inequality. 

The exhibition is often confronting, often comforting. Entering the Dax Gallery, visitors are immediately drawn to a display case containing a smashed-up iPhone, and CT and MRI scans of a brain. Three striking canvases of smattered paint and marble hang behind, mirroring the black and white scans below.

VCA graduate Sean McDowell created this work in response to a traumatic head injury he sustained in 2015. He says his artwork allowed him to confront past trauma.

“While the outcome of the work is extremely important, my personal objective is to work on my mental health and wellbeing, as well as sharing my story.”

Exhibited works range from multimedia and video to sketches and zines, reflecting the diversity of the artists themselves – not only in their lived experiences but in the diversity of medium they use to explore topics ranging from trauma to neuro-diversity and identity. 

Three pencil drawings by Melbourne-based artist Rebecca Pidgeon reflect on the artist’s struggles with mental health and her late diagnosis with Asperger’s syndrome.

“Art has always provided me with a method of coping and expressing how I feel. Art became a way for me to talk about myself and my thoughts in a way that I was not able to do verbally.”

The Dax Centre is a leader in using art to raise awareness and reduce stigma towards mental illness. The Centre also runs educational programs and houses the Cunningham Dax Collection of over 16,000 artworks created by people with experience of mental illness or psychological trauma. Select works from the massive collection were included in the exhibition, and Gallery Coordinator Stef Harris says some exhibiting artists chose pieces from the Collection as a “point of departure” that inspired their work.

“Knowing that the Collection pieces were created by artists who had lived experiences of mental illness was something [the artists] either identified with … or were even intrigued or inspired by.”

While From Heart + Mind ended prematurely, Direct of the Dax Centre Charmaine Smith says the Centre will share images from the exhibition and the Cunningham Dax Collection on Facebook and Instagram.

Leaving the exhibition, visitors are invited to contribute sketches and thoughts to a wall-sized zine and reflect on the relationship between art and their own mental health. 

A task that is necessary now more than ever.

If you or anyone you know needs help or support, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14.


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