Watching her student glide a paintbrush across a canvas, Sarah Hiley smiles and gives praise about the painting. Along with her colleague, Natasa Nikolic, she has overseen dozens of artworks being produced over the last two months in preparation of an upcoming art exhibition.
But being art tutors couldn’t be further away from their usual jobs as Health Education Officers at Australia’s only Uniting Medically Supervised Injecting Centre (Uniting MSIC).
The centre, which has been running in Sydney since 2001, allows people to inject drugs in a clean and safe environment with medically trained staff on hand should they overdose. The centre oversees on average 160 injections a day, eight overdoses a week and has never had a single death.
Seven years ago, as a pioneering idea, the centre decided to encourage its clients to turn their hands to painting as kind of therapy and promised to put their work on display.
“That first exhibition was only attended by four staff members and a dog, but it gave an incredible insight into what this event could do for our clients. We saw a massive positive impact,” explains Sarah.
“Our clients often don’t hear positive messages so it’s a confidence boost to suddenly be told they are good at something and have people want to look at their work. Looking at their talent breaks through the stereotype that people who use drugs are worthless. It makes them equal with everyone else.
“After last year’s event, one client enrolled at TAFE and is now undertaking an art course. Several others go to community run classes.”
From its humble beginnings the event has grown and this year’s event, which will run from September 4-29, will include a silent auction online for the 128 pieces of artwork submitted.
“What is so interesting is to see the inspiration from people,” explains Natasa.
“One client painted a picture of her sitting in a room with a large injection next to her and rays of sunlight on the other side. She explained it as her drug use was keeping her in the dark and holding her back. What she’d really like is to have a job, a home and a relationship with her children but she felt completely trapped by her drug dependency.
“Through discussions I learnt that she used to hold a corporate career but felt she had fallen so far that she would never be able to get her life back in order again.”
Discussions like these not only give the staff insight into who their clients are, but it allows trust to grow.
“Another client asked me to take a photo of his painting and print it out as he wanted to send it to his mum,” says Natasa.
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“He hadn’t been in contact with her for 11 years. He said he had never had anything positive to say to her, but now the painting could act as a bridge for him to start communications again.”
For Sarah the exhibition brings out the joy and happiness in her work.
“I believe society is only as strong as its most vulnerable members. It’s not OK to cast aside and judge people who use drugs, we need to step in and help. Through the exhibition I see happiness, I see joy and it makes my job truly wonderful and worthwhile,” she says.
For more information about the event, click here.