Some garden projects just leave me in awe. One such project is the Jessie Mary Vasey Labyrinth located at Austin Health’s Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital in Melbourne, the first hospital labyrinth in Victoria. This is a special place that offers respite, refuge and reflection.
Some may question the appropriateness of spending money on projects like this within healthcare settings. However I strongly believe that we need to approach the provision of healthcare in a holistic manner and care for the physical, emotional and psychological needs of our patients, their families and also the staff. I have witnessed the positive benefits experienced by patients and their families that come from incorporating gardens and spaces like this labyrinth within the healthcare setting.
People use a labyrinth for many reasons: spiritual enrichment, calming the mind, personal reflection, anxiety reduction, discernment regarding a major decision, or to assist with processing grief or loss. All of which are applicable to those who may find themselves in a hospital. A labyrinth involves three stages – walking in, which can be associated with letting go or releasing things which may hinder us; spending time at the centre to reflect, and walking out, returning to the real world. It is a continuous path along a circular pattern that guarantees success to a centre point, unlike a maze. In many ways the walk is a walking meditation with the journey being as important as the destination.
Just the other day I walked this labyrinth as a time of reflection for my past year. I walked in remembering the past events, being thankful for the wide and varied experiences and the lessons learnt. I then stopped in the centre to mark the ending and beginning of the years, and I then walked out looking forward to the opportunities that may be ahead for the new year.
So why was I in awe of this project? Well this was a special project that at many stages left me feeling appreciative of being part of a team that provided such a positive end result of a beautiful landmark. In my role as the hospital’s Gardens and Grounds Project Officer I was fortunate to be part of the collaborative team on this project, which was officially opened on the 11th November 2013, Remembrance Day. The team was led by Rob Winther, our Veterans Liaison Officer, and consisted of Simon Normand the designer, artist and creator, the War Widows Guild, chaplains, various hospital staff, Lisa Foley the mural artist, and me.
So how did we come about building a labyrinth and how did we fund it? Many years ago Rob was chatting with a gentleman patient on the palliative care unit who thought the idea of a having a labyrinth would help his fellow patients during their time in hospital. Some ideas take time to flourish and this idea was no different. With no available funds the idea remained just that for a few years, however the momentum had started and different people became engaged over time as enthusiasm increased.
The Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital has a proud heritage of caring for veterans and war widows, and today it continues to treat veterans and war widows and also provides services to the wider community including, day surgery, mental health services, aged care and outpatient services. Due to this strong heritage, the War Widows Guild of Australia (Victoria) made a generous patriotic donation to build the labyrinth. Mrs Jessie Mary Vasey, the widow of Major General George Vasey, founded the War Widows Guild of Australia in 1945 and it is named in her honour.
This was a significant structural and artistic project so finding an appropriate site was really important. A site needed to be found that was accessible for patients, big enough to accommodate the labyrinth, was reasonably quiet to foster meditation and contemplation, and wasn’t destined for future building development. Not an easy task in a hospital site! It was a challenge, however a site was found and Simon got to work. Now this is actually the part that I was significantly in awe of. To watch such a creative and talented artist and stonemason like Simon was such a joy. Over the course of 15 months Simon created a 19m (62ft) wide circle containing a 480m (525 yards) long labyrinth pathway that sits beautifully into the landscape of the hospital.
At the entrance two granite sentinel stones mark the beginning of the pathway. Within one is placed a small bronzed replica and you can stand there quietly moving your finger around the pathway, almost as a means of preparing yourself for the larger walking experience.
A beautifully crafted low wall made from stone sourced from Castlemaine and Dromana surrounds the labyrinth. This wall helps to subtly anchor the space and helps to keep the focus on the labyrinth experience rather than the surrounding landscape. Within this wall are positioned seven mosaic seats with indigenous symbols of flora and fauna representing the Wurundjeri seasons. Simon engaged students from the local Alphington Primary School to make these mosaics and they are quite detailed and stunning. A small plaque sits at the base of each seat to explain the different seasons. It is almost a shame to sit on them, but taking a moment to sit down and appreciate the space is too enjoyable to not do so.
Based on a traditional seven ring design, the skilfully laid slate pathway is defined by grey stone. This enables a safe walking journey and the easy ability to push someone in a wheelchair as I have observed many times over the past year. Or as I recently noticed, pushing a pram along the stone path to help settle a young child while waiting for a hospital appointment.
Artist elements have been incorporated into the surface such as a southern cross and the centre circle that represents the growth rings of a tree trunk. While not intended in the design, a wonderful quirk of fate is that when standing on that centre point there is a subtle echo off the surrounding wall as you speak.
I really appreciate that this design doesn’t just start from the outside and work inwards. I believe that would be too functional and less enjoyable, almost like an expected journey. Rather, as you travel the path you at times get closer to the centre, but then find yourself closer to the outside further away from the centre, but then you do arrive at the desired centre point. I appreciate this because it is a great example to use when speaking with patients within the hospital, because life is often like this situation. We don’t always get to our desired point as easily as we hope to. Sometimes we feel that we are close but then issues arise like poor health that take us further away but we can still continue forward.
To complement the sharing of the Wurundjeri seasons in the mosaic seats, artist Lisa Foley was commissioned to paint murals along the covered pathway as you enter the site. These beautiful murals complement the imagery incorporated in the seats and add a wonderful vibrancy to the area as you approach the labyrinth.
An indigenous planting palette was used in keeping with the location and the other design elements. From a practical point they are also suited to the site and require establishment watering only. Surrounding the labyrinth are Goodenia ovata, Lomandra longifolia, Correa glabra, Dianella longifolia, Hardenbergia violacaea and a ring of Allocasuarina littoralis which will eventually envelope the space adding to the feeling of it being a sanctuary that offers respite, refuge and reflection.