Hope Healing and Contemplation

Hope, Healing & Contemplation: Jill brooks, Mélanie Rocan, and Shelley Vanderbyl

Through the work of three artists: Jill brooks, Mélanie Rocan, and Shelley Vanderbyl; this exhibition examines the role of art as a significant tool in our journey to hope and healing; and contemplation of what is and what might be.  Art is not an afterthought at St. Boniface Hospital; it is the raison d’être for the Buhler Gallery in this non-traditional, medically focused space.

A recent study, commissioned by London-based arts charity and social enterprise Aesop, found that among 1,002 general practitioners interviewed, two-thirds agreed that “public engagement with the arts can make a significant contribution to the prevention agenda.” Dr. Laura Marshall-Andrews, with the Brighton Health and Wellbeing Centre, when asked about the impetus behind the greater interest for arts in health today, suggested that patients’ needs are not being met and resources are lacking. Everyone is under pressure, noting that patients are living much longer, in more isolated environments, and with less community support. “A lot of social change has been medicalized, and we’re starting to realize that and try and do something about it.” While it takes more than positive attitudes to affect change, the findings are encouraging. Medical care is becoming more holistic in its approach. Increasingly, the goal is to maintain health and stress long term care rather than short term intervention; health maintenance is the goal and the visual arts are part of that movement.

In their book Art as Therapy philosopher and author Alain de Botton, and art historian and theorist John Armstrong, argue that art can serve a distinctly practical purpose. Art works, they contend, can be approached as tools for the resolution of difficult issues in individual life. Hope, Healing & Contemplation, through the work of artists Jill brooks, Mélanie Rocan, and Shelley Vanderbyl, looks at the role art plays in meeting the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of the viewer.  Brooks, Rocan and Vanderbyl create work that is rich in emotional texture, and meaning; while varying in subject matter, mediums and style. Each artist constructs narratives that invite us to explore moments and viewpoints from both an emotional and analytical perspective.  Each work holds within itself an awareness of environment and life experience, and presents the possibility of personal transformation.

Shelley Vanderbyl’s “pocket paintings” are created expressly for the purpose of

providing comfort. She sometimes refers to them as “good medicine”.  Her tiny landscapes, nestled into empty, old-fashioned metal tins that formerly dispensed relief in pill form, now offer a new and holistic form of relief in moments of distress.  

Both Vanderbyl’s miniature landscapes, and her larger frescoes, are informed by her lived experience.  As a military wife, she has pulled up roots, moved, and built a new life for herself and her family, in a new location, as career moves demanded.  The tiny vintage tins travel safely in her pocket and provide a way to remember and to feel comfort through the pastoral.

Vanderbyl is particularly interested in reaching people experiencing mental hardships and those with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and asks, “If what someone has seen can leave them broken, can an image be a part of their healing?”  Her nature-inspired frescoes deal directly with trauma.  After years of working as a dry-wall taper and working to create only smooth surfaces, her frescoes explore a very different aesthetic. Layer after layer of plaster is applied, each new layer represents a risk that will change the outcome of the work.  Her frescoes have a feeling, and a texture, of roughness. “They’ve had trauma too,” she says, referencing the Japanese aesthetic of Wabi Sabi, which celebrates the beauty of imperfect things; chips, marks, and signs of wear only adding to their beauty.


With its scars and imperfections, her work reflects deeply personal events in her own life that resonate with the viewer. Reclaimed Ash, a piece she says that she will likely never sell, includes marks made from the charred branches of her beloved apple tree that became diseased and died. She planted it to literally “put down roots” in a new home and keep track of precious stable years in one place.  The tree no longer exists and she has moved homes; but the tree provided her with the opportunity to reclaim its ash and become part of the textures of her paintings. Remembering, through works of art, helps us to hold on to the things we love; to bring to mind what really matters: something complex or elusive that can be grasped at its core.



Similarly, Clay from the River Bank Where I Sat Waiting for Answers, includes “mined” material, river clay added to the plaster as well as her own deeply personal experience, which she shares with the viewer. Her artistic process involves layering of materials as well as ideas. Some of these layers are created through discoveries of hope, in being able to mine something good out of difficulty. “With my work”, says Vanderbyl, “I’m building a material language of hope.”

Healing often involves the acts of growth, self-understanding, and rebalancing.  Vanderbyl, Rocan, and Brooks each invite the viewer into a world that is beautiful, rich with meaning, but often with a sense of unease, and in some canvasses even a vague – if not outright – feeling of foreboding.  Mélanie Rocan’s lush paintings invite us into watery worlds, lure us beyond veil-like drapery, and into dark spaces.  Her work invites us to explore spaces that are more dream than reality, “My work”, says Rocan, “observes the harsh reality of our world, and yet tries to find hope, beauty and optimism within its often tragic and foreboding themes… There exists a dichotomy between the inner emotional condition and the psychological unease with the environment depicted in the paintings.”   


This unease is felt in Narrow Path. We are faced with a wall – beautiful, but still a wall – and a tunnel.  Where does the tunnel lead? Is the wall meant to keep the viewer out; or to keep the viewer safe? Are the flowers hiding something? Does the tunnel in fact lead to safety? Or not? The beauty in the ambiguity is beguiling; yet tension keeps us suspended. Regrettably, not all paths we choose – medically or in life – are what we hope for. We want to navigate this environment, to move forward, but there is an element of risk and uncertainty in our journey.

The female figure in Hybernation is partially hidden or even caught in her environment. She is laying on her side, hands and arms cradling her head, while she lays in a garden of dark foliage. A shear lace veil floats in piles over her – hinting at dreams and awakenings.  The dark garden and its inhabitant remind the viewer of Persephone, princess of the underworld, who carries into effect the curses of men upon the souls of the dead. Persephone is the wife of Hades, the god of the underworld, and her abduction represents her function as the personification of vegetation, which shoots forth in spring and withdraws into the earth after harvest. In this painting, the woman’s posture alludes to a sad narrative, even with the first signs of light visible behind her.  

Sorrow is written into the contract of all of our lives – it is a central and universal feature – but we are not suffering alone.  Stars and oceans, glints of light, remind us of how we are part of the immensity of space and time. In our worst experiences, “art is there to lend them a social expression”.

Breaking Through

While the female figure in Rocan’s work rests in an ambiguous and surreal landscape; Brooks’ women are nestled safely and comfortably in their environments. Brooks’ paintings of female figures in gardens re-imagine notable women from decades of popular culture. Each depiction and each character references an archetypal Eve,  a metaphor, which Brooks places in her own personal Garden.   As in Rocan’s work, even though Brooks’ paintings are filled with colour and light, danger lurks – perhaps unseen – in the form of snakes and poisonous creatures, intimating that innocence can easily be lost. Interestingly, the two artists also share a relationship through their mediums; Rocan began as a watercolourist and now works in oils, while Brooks began with oils and moved to watercolour.

Brooks choice of characters represents either a popular or a personal icon, ranging from fictional television characters, to writers and poets of significance, to feminist archetypes. She treats them with admiration and affection.  As Brooks says, “Eve is young, she is old. She is mother, she is daughter. She is innocence, she is experience. She is naïve, she is wise. She is whimsical, she is serious. She is every woman.”

These images strike a chord with the viewer.  Lush garden images are meticulously rendered. Their carefully immortalized commercial objects – Eves of various descriptions – are lovingly nestled in their midst as a reminder of days past, dreams fulfilled – or not – and wishes for the future.

Much of Brooks choice of subject matter “reflects the vanitas tradition, meant as a reminder of the transience of life, the futility of pleasure, and the certainty of death. The enjoyment evoked by the sensuous painting of the subject is in fascinating contrast to the moralistic message. “

Brooks watercolour paintings are vehicles of light, form and colour, that carry significant content.  Flowers have a particular attraction to her as “through their life cycle they assume postures which mirror those of people, expressing the same characteristics of strength and vulnerability.”  Her watercolour representations of flowers – roses, asters, tulips – are exquisitely beautiful, inviting the viewer to come near.  Upon closer examination, however, they reveal their sad stories. The inherent beauty of the faded flowers encourage remembrance of the past and contemplation of the future. We want to remember what is really important; the essence of a person or a thing.  

In Nightgarden we see not only the flowers, but also the various creatures that inhabit the garden, frozen in our gaze. The small animals, insects and peripheral flowers form a background for the central image, but are also there to support it and ensure the continuation of the cycle of life, death and rebirth. We are all faced with significant changes in our lives: sometimes the news is good; and sometimes not.  We can look at the delicate beauty in a faded flower and remember that sadness is not forever. Sadness and loss, though highly personal, are feelings that are not permanent. Sadness and loss is also not all pervasive; even in the midst of sorrow there are moments of beauty and, eventually, joy. Just like Brooks garden with its tiny creatures; there is beauty, life and resilience in every corner.

I can barely conceive of a type of beauty in which there is no melancholy.  

Charles Baudelaire

These three artists invite us to consider their work in the context of hope, healing and contemplation.  Each work of art is imbued with a particular feeling: serenity, calm, restlessness, foreboding, yearning, and so forth that the viewer connects with; and can contemplate.  Vanderbyl’s tiny landscapes remind us of the natural beauty all around; and her frescoes, with broken and renewed surfaces reassure us. Marks from the past are palimpsests that inform our futures.  Rocan’s lush, dreamy and sensuous forms encourage awakenings; as well as moving into landscapes that are unfamiliar and perhaps foreboding. Brooks works evoke the ephemeral and the temporality of our existences; a treasured image of an icon causes us to remember, and a faded flower causes us to contemplate the future.  In contemplation we can we can rebalance. Through contemplation these three artists are encouraging us – and all viewers – to become the best versions of ourselves.

Leona Herzog


Buhler Gallery

St. Boniface Hospital

Shelley VanderbylComment