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Camille harnesses art’s healing power

Camille Christensen 766A1529_final_8x12.jpg

Camille Christensen knows all about the healing power of art.

After two strokes, the Roma born 81-year-old says her painting has helped her through many tough times, including the past year.

“When you’re painting, you’re just in a different world,” she says. “there’s nothing else. You’re just concentrating on the painting.”

Being resilient has been a hallmark of Camille’s life in the face of health challenges including the strokes and visual impairment.

“I just got on with it,” she says. “They say ‘when life gives you lemons, make lemonade,’ so I think that’s what I did.

She moved to Bolton Clarke’s Galleon Gardens residential aged care community in 2018 to support her growing health needs.

“I needed extra support, so my daughter helped me find Galleon Gardens while I was still in hospital. She thought this was the best place because all the nurses were smiling and happy – and she only lives five minutes away too.

“I feel at home here, the team goes the extra mile to help me. I couldn’t be happier.

“They have encouraged me with my art and even participated in art. They made me a special gift, drawing caricatures of themselves and signing with their name. I have this artwork hanging on my wall.

“They’ve also made the gazebo available for me to use for painting and are always happy to carry things and help me take my supplies out there when needed.”

Getting back to painting wasn’t easy, but with a great speech therapist and occupational therapy, Camille found and renewed her talents during rehab, all without the use of her dominant hand.

“My left hand is paralysed. I basically had to relearn how to paint. It was very hard, and it took me several years.”

Camille says her faith in God was challenged in her struggle.

“I remember asking God, ‘why me?’ It really rocked me, but I realized that I had a bigger challenge ahead of me and I needed God by my side to help me through it all.

“Still, it was very frustrating and there were several times where I felt like giving up, but my daughter encouraged me. She said ‘mum, you’ve got to do this’ – and she was right, so I did do it.

“Every time I stopped, I would miss the feeling of visiting other worlds, so I would go back and try again.”

Switching from her non-dominant hand also brought a new style in an artistic career spanning more than 60 years from when she first fell in love with painting at 14.

“My uncle gave me a painting kit, and I painted little things, pictures in books and replicated existing work as practice.

“I developed my passion for painting after study and not a day went by that I didn’t paint.”

Camille says she took a more planned approach to her earlier work.

“My earlier paintings feel like freedom to me. I was free of restrictions that I have now.

“My favourite one from back then is titled ‘The Lady in Red.’ I was reading about the life of Renoir at the time, and I think he was holding my hand as I painted her because I’d never been able to do skin before.

“That was the painting that got me accepted into the Institute.”

Since her stroke and rehabilitation, she has adopted abstract impressionism - painting by feel and instinct more than sight.

“I’ve begun to paint with my hands and fingers more than a brush because of my macular degeneration.

“With abstract painting, I close my eyes and make shapes with charcoal. The paintings reveal themselves to me after that. I don’t often know what they are until I add colour.

“I do take requests and do birds and flowers, but most of my work is not deliberate. I never plan them; they just unveil themselves to me.”

One of Camille’s recent works, titled ‘The Medusa,’ captures strikingly the challenges that she has faced, and the struggles of disruption many have experienced over the past year.

“My Medusa represents frustration, a trapped feeling, devastation, depression and almost desperation. I didn’t know it was her I was painting at first – I had painted swirls, and then I realized the swirls were snakes above her head. Her eyes are just starting to open, and the legend goes that when she fixes you with her eyes you turn to stone.”

Camille did her Diploma of Arts and a Graduate Diploma of Teaching in her 30’s, at the Darling Downs Institute of Advanced Education, now the University of Southern Queensland.

After she graduated, she taught art and mathematics at high school, before becoming a primary school teacher.

She says she is grateful to have the support she needs to continue to develop and work on her painting, and other creative pursuits. Her next challenge will be writing a book about her life as part of Bolton Clarke’s Life Stories project, which encourages and enables aged care residents to document their stories in an illustrated memoir.