Northern Ireland

Belfast artist puts smiles on ill children's faces

Sadie and her mum Pauline look at a painting of a snail at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children
Image caption Artwork on the walls of the Royal Hospital for Sick Children is a pleasant distraction for the patients

It is hard being in hospital at any age, but especially scary when you are a child being treated for cancer.

Five-year-old Sadie has been undergoing treatment for leukaemia at Belfast's Royal Hospital for Sick Children since before the summer.

Mum Pauline McCallion says Sadie has become used to the haematology ward but one thing is guaranteed to distract her - the vivid artworks by a local artist.

Image caption Paintings by Dawn Crothers colour the hospital's corridors

Not only do they create a homeliness, they also have a great practical use.

"From the moment you walk in the door of the hospital you feel very welcomed," said Pauline McCallion.

"Aside from the great work the staff do it is nice to walk in and see there are so many colours, a lot of pictures.

Image caption Pauline McCallion says the art has an inspirational effect for her daughter Sadie

"It's good when you are in with the kids and maybe they are doing something that is a bit difficult or scary - it's nice to have a distraction and to be able to talk about all the artwork on the walls.

"It's also inspirational - a lot of the kids do their own artwork as well."

Sadie certainly appears to be diverted by the paintings, counting the animals contained within and telling the staff all about the colours.

Image caption Sadie has been undergoing treatment for leukaemia for several months

The concept of art and wellbeing is not new.

The ancient Greeks believed that theatre and sculpture helped those with physical and mental illnesses.

In the medieval era, this evolved into religiously-themed art in hospitals.

Image caption Paintings of animals add a sense of warmth and homeliness to the hospital walls

The Victorians thought patients could be made happier by pictures, gardens and decorations.

That all changed in the first half of the 20th Century, when a more medicalised approach to care was developed, and patients suffered a decorative vacuum until the 1960s.

But that attitude has also undergone a sea change, as Paula McHugh, the arts in health manager at the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust, explains.

Image caption Art in hospitals can help to lower people's perception of pain, says Paula McHugh

"I think post-war hospitals were very clinical - art was not prioritised and the benefits were not recognised.

"But we've come full circle and more because even in terms of public health the really positive benefits of art are being recognised and evidenced better.

The importance of arts in health is not only acknowledged, Paula says, but is "on the up".

Image caption Bright paintings of snails are among Sadie's favourites in the hospital

"Recent studies show about the decrease in anxiety levels when there is art and music around a hospital, and it can lower people's perception of pain."

Back at the haematology ward, the paintings by Belfast artist Dawn Crothers continue to work their magic, and one has a particular meaning for nurse Gail Burns.

"The one with the snails - if we look at the journey a snail takes it is slow but determined," she says.

Image caption Gail Burns says the artwork is popular with the young patients and their parents

"Our children, this is a journey for them - they are very determined to get to the end.

"It can be a long journey for them and their parents, but they get there.

"People often comment on the paintings - and they have certainly been a big hit with our patients and their parents."

Image caption Dawn Crothers donated a number of her pieces to the hospital

Dawn says she is pleased her work is proving beneficial.

"I've heard a bit of feedback that they are a good distraction and that the children like talking about them, pointing out things and making up their own stories," she adds.

In spite of her chemotherapy, Sadie certainly knows which one she likes best: "The one with all the snails in because they are pretty!"