The Heart of Operation Art: Lilia’s Story

I hope you enjoy Lilia’s Story. This is the speech from my last formal function to officially open Operation Art at Maitland Regional Art Gallery:

Sometimes in life we just get lucky, well I really landed on my feet the day I started this job. I’ve received the utmost pleasure from being the Coordinator of Operation Art and managing this unique program. I feel very privileged to have been given the opportunity to meet and work with some amazing people.

Operation Art was initiated by the Children’s Hospital at Westmead and is run by the NSW Department of Education.
Every year we ask schools across NSW to submit up to four artworks each. These artworks are created by students for children in hospital and from all of those we select fifty to become part of the permanent collection at the Children’s Hospital at Westmead. Because they are so great they are shown firstly at the Art Gallery of NSW and then tour throughout the following year to several regional galleries before returning to hang on the walls at the hospital.
I could give you more facts like that about the program but I would rather tell you a story that shows you its heart.

Lilia’s Story:
I first met Lilia in 2006 when her artwork was hanging in the Operation Art main exhibition.

Teddies Ready For Bed
Ready For Bed

Lilia was 8 years old and her chalk pastel drawing of teddies ‘Ready for Bed’ artwork was hanging proudly alongside 601 others, it had been selected in the top fifty and had also been chosen as the junior winner for that year.
The next time I met Lilia, was the following year at the same annual exhibition opening. Once again her artwork had been selected to represent her school and once again it had been selected in the top fifty.

She bowled up to me excitedly and said “Mrs Steel, I have to tell you something. Last year when my art was hanging at the Art Gallery of NSW I met a lovely lady artist… her name was Margaret… and she invited me back to draw.” I looked for some kind of explanation from her Dad who was standing proudly next to his clever daughter. Yes, Lilia had indeed met Margaret Olley at the opening and subsequently, arrangements had been made for a short visit.

Lilia & There's Bugs at the Bottom of My Garden
Lilia & There's Bugs at the Bottom of My Garden

This little girl had been invited into Margaret’s wonderful world of art one afternoon and they’d spent time talking and drawing together. Lilia had been inspired and had gone on to create her artwork that was hanging in the 2007 exhibition. I looked at her latest entry and noticed that it was a very busy still life, a work full of flowers. The inspirational Margaret Olley was all over it!

“Wow Lilia! You must be so proud of what you have done,” I said. “Do you realise that you’ve had your artworks selected twice by your school now to be hung professionally here in this gallery with all these other ones? And by the time they get back to hang on the walls in the hospital, you will have exhibited twice at the Art Gallery of NSW (I haven’t); you have drawn with one of Australia’s most loved and well-known artists (I haven’t); your artworks will have toured to at least ten regional galleries across NSW over two years (mine haven’t) and they’ve probably been seen by about 100,000 people in that time… and you are only eight years old!”
“Yes,” she said quietly, “but the best thing Mrs Steel,” and her face lit up now, “is that now I’ll have two artworks hanging at the hospital.”
What I didn’t know about Lilia until then and her Mum had to explain to me was, that before Lilia went to school, she had spent quite some time in the Children’s Hospital at Westmead as one of their young patients. And as a family they had spent, what seemed at the time, like endless hours with Lilia in the hospital. She had spent nervous nights away from home and they had all waited together for tests to be done or results to come back, hours that turned into days of anxiously waiting, waiting and more waiting.

The only sanctuary they found during that difficult time was in walking the halls. This hospital is a registered art gallery and Lilia loved looking at the artworks hanging on the walls. They invited her into their world of colour and imagination and transported her away to a calmer place without cares. Her Mum and Dad and brother would take turns to walk mile upon mile around the halls with Lilia and they’d all be whisked away into her other world. Lilia had found the value of visual arts at the age of only four years old. She understood the real and very practical value that an artwork can have on its viewer.

When the Children’s Hospital at Westmead was opened, its then CEO, Dr John Yu wanted it to be a total healing environment where design, decoration, gardens and art combine with the best possible medical care to comfort and heal the young patients and so he asked Joanna Capon to be the curator of this amazing gallery. Joanna collected artworks from some of Australia’s leading and well- known artists like Arthur Boyd, Michael Johnson and Ben Quilty… but the artworks that are the most loved and appreciated by the young patients are the Operation Art works. They help families transcend tough times and help to bring a smile to the faces of the dedicated staff. These are the ones that the children can relate to, they tell their stories in their own way and remind them of happier times and places.

So when you look at these artworks exhibited here today at Maitland Regional Art Gallery, enjoy your sneak peek before they return and are hung forever in the hospital. Remember why they were done and who they have been created for, think about who will look into them in the future.
Think of Lilia… and let yourself be drawn into the world she found when she was only four years old!

3 Comment

  1. Denyse Whelan says:

    My dearest Fiona, what a fantastic way to complete your last (for now) official role for Operation Art…your blog shows the very essence of humanity and the ways of inter-connectedness through the visual medium – art. The generational gaps slip as the young girl and the older woman “work” through their shared love of colours, textures, flowers and beauty.
    You, my very special teacher, friend and colleague, continue to amaze and delight me with your insight and passion for the beauty within and on the outside.
    The stories from Operation Art are made more humane and touching by your thoughtful blog. Lovely Lady … Have a Fantastic Trip …Denyse xxx

  2. fionasteel says:

    Thank you Denyse…there is no doubt that your comments are special to me because they come from a colleague who I believe understands where I truly began my journey. As a teacher, a mum and a grandmother you also fully understand the joy we have in watching the light switch on when a child just ‘gets it’…. no matter what the medium or learning area!

    As an added extra: Lilia was part of a presentation to teachers and principals at a conference last week. Her artwork was selected this year to be on the t shirts worn by every participant at the Instrumental Festival at the Sydney Opera House a couple of months ago… and I just learned today that she’ll be singing a solo at the Public School Choral Festival at the Sydney Opera House in August. Her confidence has soared as she grown into an amazing teenager and I’m so very excited about watching her future.

  3. […] I first met Lilia as a budding visual artist when she was only 8 years old and recently she opened the Operation Art exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW and spoke about how this program and the arts had impacted upon her life. She is a confident young teenager now who continues to be excited by life’s challenges. I am watching her grow in so many ways and constantly learn from and enjoy her achievements. Maybe she’ll send me a copy of her speech from the opening and I can add it here as a link for you all to be inspired… but in the mean time… while you can’t see her here, you can enjoy Lilia singing ‘Who Would Imagine A King’. My original blog about Lilia is at: […]

Leave a Reply