Brisbane medical specialist and Uniting Church member Dr Ian Airey, chairperson of Wesley Mission Queensland’s Art from the Margins, talks to Dianne Jensen about the healing power of the creative arts.
Anaesthetist and former intensive care specialist Dr Ian Airey is no stranger to ministering to people undergoing trauma or dislocation. Yet walking into a Brisbane park with other Albert Street Uniting Church members in 2004 to meet the people dwelling on the fringes of the city was a step into the unknown.
Albert Street is the spiritual home of Wesley Mission Queensland, which provides a range of community services in the state’s south east. This time, the congregation had been challenged by their new deacon Rev Tim Hodgson to join him in meeting the homeless and disadvantaged people gathering just outside the church’s doorstep.
“That first introduction is the most difficult,” says Ian. “Meeting people who are living with homelessness, disability or isolation can be confronting. But beyond that which confronts us are people with feelings and needs and aspirations which are just like ours.
“By saying ‘hello’, we are acknowledging them as fully human and worthy in the sight of God.”
The meetings became regular, sowing the seed for a remarkable creative outreach which has been transforming the lives of people living with disadvantage for a decade. Art from the Margins (AFTM) was born.
“As the clients of the coffee vans got to know the Albert Street people, conversations began to flow,” recalls Ian. “One client, Austin Hellier, challenged Wesley Mission to offer more services to the homeless. He suggested a number of isolated people found solace and enrichment through art. Austin said if they had a space to display their art their fulfilment would be enhanced.
“Albert Street rose to the challenge and created a space in the church to display their art in 2008. Brisbane Festival then agreed to include this exhibition in the Brisbane Festival program.”
Ian says that the congregation was astounded by the positive impact this small gesture by the church had on the lives of the artists.
“For many of the artists, this was the first time they had been recognised for their skills. They wore broad smiles and there is no doubt that their lives were enriched.”
One of those artists was Francis, whose severe cerebral palsy left him wheel-chair bound. His health deteriorated further after suffering a stroke, requiring regular physiotherapy to maintain movement.
“Francis loved drawing. He entered the 2009 AFTM exhibition and was thrilled when he saw his name in the catalogue. He was more excited when he saw his work displayed at the exhibition and he couldn’t contain his excitement when his work sold,” says Ian. “In due course, Francis received a cheque from the sale. He wouldn’t let the cheque be banked for months and showed it to all his friends, he was so proud.
“Francis was in his fifties at the time. This was the first time in his life he had earned anything from personal effort. This is the sort of magic seen at AFTM.”
Since that initial exhibition AFTM has grown into an ongoing initiative of Wesley Mission Queensland managed by art professionals and supported by volunteers, with Ian Airey as chairperson. It has a gallery in Fortitude Valley, with regular workshops and a professional development program mentoring emerging artists.
Over 1000 artists including those living with mental health issues, physical or intellectual disabilities, social isolation, or experiencing homelessness have been part of the program.
Taking up the challenge
For Ian Airey, being an active member of the church community has almost always been part of his life. He grew up in the Camp Hill Methodist Church in Brisbane, attending the big Methodist youth camps in the late 1960s and connecting with Christians who have remained part of his life.
Following matriculation, Ian studied medicine at the University of Queensland and later trained in anaesthesia and critical care specialities. In May this year he was appointed as Director of Anaesthesia, Mater Health Services.
He admits to choosing medicine partly because it had the reputation of being a difficult course.
“Having dyslexia made the challenge even greater. I guess being up for a challenge has always been part of my DNA,” says Ian.
Like many health professionals, Ian’s work places him at the front line of caring for people coping with potentially life-changing issues. Over the years he has learnt that wellbeing goes beyond therapeutic intervention.
“Practising medicine constantly exposes one to people confronting circumstances they would rather avoid,” he says. “Illness focuses the mind and even minor illnesses change our view on life. Pain from arthritis may cause us to forego recreational running. Influenza may keep us in bed for a day or two. People with serious illness may wonder if their life will be foreshortened. Loved ones may be confronted by a family member coping with a terminal illness.”
His involvement with AFTM has underlined just how much people living with disadvantage can achieve when provided with acceptance, opportunity and encouragement.
“Through AFTM I have had the privilege to meet people with severe impairments. However, through their positive attitudes, they overcome their impairment and accomplish some very creative achievements. I am impressed by their tenacity. They are all living with adversity [yet] they are all creating works of art,” he says.
“The state of mind, social support and a host of other things are as important as the medical treatment.”
Faith in action
Ian’s faith is a lived commitment to the words of Jesus, “And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’” (Matthew 25:40 NRSV).
In addition to his work through AFTM he has had a long involvement with Wesley Mission Queensland and is chairperson of the Wesley Mission Queensland Council. Ian was also a member of the UnitingCare Queensland Board for nine years.
With years of hands-on medical care behind him as well as extensive experience in church agency governance and policy, Ian is convinced that seeing beyond the barriers raised by disability and disadvantage is intrinsic to Christ’s call to the church.
“In a sense people with disability for whatever cause are “the other”, but it is a Christian imperative that we see beyond the impairment and look at the potential. They should not be excluded for being ‘the other’ but welcomed into the group. The group might be surprised that ‘the other’ can do some extraordinary things. Believe me, I have seen it.”
AFTM will hold its tenth Brisbane Festival exhibition from 14–17 September with the theme of “Celebration”. For more information visit artfromthemargins.org.au or call 1300 541 637.