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Art, like prayer, is always an expression of longing. Wendy Beckett

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Dougall, Keith - VM - Rod Pattenden

Keith Dougall: Catching Your Breath

Breath is Life

by Rod Pattenden

Those entering the Royal Hobart Hospital (in Hobart, Tasmania) each day do so with a variety of reasons that range from the mundane to the more pressing issues of life or death. It is an entrance way marked by fear and anxiety, as well as compassion, kindness and love. Perched high above these anxious concerns in the vast space of the atrium are seven large nets containing what seem like bubbles or spherical glass balls, floating as if on an invisible sea or cloud of air. This installation is the work of glass artist Keith Dougall, who has worked with hundreds of staff, patients and visitors as well as a team of technical assistants to create a work that invites an instant sense of compassion and empathy entitled ‘Catching Your Breath’. Installed in 2020 this public art project engages the viewer with a profound sense of delight and playfulness. Set within this vast entry lobby its clear sense of wonder is enough to take your breath away.

The work has an immediate impact and lifts the eyes of the viewer up into the space to consider its construction and to foster curiosity about its meaning. Keith Dougall is an experienced glass artist with a considerable body of work, from individual art glass pieces to major public commissions. As a glass blower who uses his own breath to form work out of molten glass, he has extended his practice to incorporate the breath of others as the basic metaphor explored by this work. When each glass bubble was formed in the studio, they were provided with a small entry hole, where later patients, family members and staff were invited to supply their own breath. After this the work was finally sealed up. The overall installation consists of these bubbles as containers for this gift of life.

The artist explains: “The work symbolises the fragility and resilience of breath and life. The suspension of the work is a metaphor for the support and care that staff and family provide the patient, lifting them up in their time of need.” Behind the stunning presentation of the work high above the heads of those who enter the hospital lies a complex process of manufacture and preparation that amplifies the work’s achievement as a community arts project. As people filled each vessel with their breath, many of their stories were recorded on video and became part of the documentation of the work through a dedicated website. One therefore takes in the work and the history of its formation as a part of a whole process based in compassion and understanding. It is a representation of the nets of connection that surround individuals as they come into the hospital environment, where every breath and every heartbeat is closely monitored.

The breath of life is metaphor strongly present in the Christian tradition. We remember that God forms creation through the agency of breath and breathes life into the clay of creatures, including that of human beings. This fundamental connection was clearly in the mind of the artist who works each day breathing life into inert glass forms that become vessels of delicate fragility and profound beauty. Perhaps this is the role some artists are energised by, through breathing life into material things, through imagination and transformation remaking the world into a habitation for wonder and human kindness. This work is one of embodied spirituality and community connection that successfully celebrates the role of a health care institution and the fundamental human values of love and compassion that lie at the heart of all healing and wholeness.

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Keith Dougall: Catching Your Breath, 2020, suspended sculptural form incorporating the breath of 300 patients, visitors and staff of the Royal Hobart Hospital (Hobart, Tasmania, Australia), sealed into individual unique glass breath bubbles and suspended in seven woven stainless steel nets. Further information about the project ‘Catching Your Breath’, including video of its manufacture and installation, can be accessed at https://www.catchingyourbreath.net.au.

Keith Dougall is an Australian artist working mainly in glass. He is a graduate of the Canberra School of Art Glass Workshop. Using a variety of techniques he makes individual studio pieces, architectural glass, and large-scale public art commissions. He lives in Poatina, Tasmania where he has developed the Alethea Mountain Retreat Arts Centre and public access glass studio. He is a teacher and mentor and is involved in a number of community arts initiatives in Tasmania, including Poatina Arts. He is interested in the links between creativity and spirituality, and the sacred nature of life often finds expression in his work. Further information about the artist is found at: https://www.keithdougall.com.au

Rod Pattenden is an Australian art historian and theologian interested in the power of images and the manner in which they work in the context of spirituality and religion. He is minister of the Adamstown Uniting Church in Newcastle, Australia, where he has developed a vibrant community arts program. http://www.rodpattenden.id.au

ArtWay Visual Meditation September 28, 2021