Creating new memories with art

Palmerston artist and author Alicia Hall holds together the huge pile of knitting she has created...
Palmerston artist and author Alicia Hall holds together the huge pile of knitting she has created in the years since her son’s death. Top right: Craig Hall reads to his nephews (from left) Oliver, then 1, and Jack Taylor, then 3, in a photograph from 2016. Bottom right: Craig and his nephews as depicted in Art Musketeers. PHOTOS: WYATT RYDER/SUPPLIED
Just months after her daughter was released from hospital with brain damage, Alicia Hall’s son died on the way home from a party in Dunedin. The family went through a lot, but processed their pain through art. Reporter Wyatt Ryder sat down with the Palmerston visual artist and author to discuss how and why her family is advocating for the creation of art as a therapy tool.

Alicia Hall’s home is saturated in art.

Her grandson’s drawings hang in the kitchen. Coils of homespun wool sprawl across the floor. To her left sits a pile of knitting with more than 1200 pieces. Collectively it weighs 25kg.

Six years ago her life was not so colourful.

In 2017 her daughter Melissa was rear-ended while driving. She sustained an injury which left her brain ventricles blocked.

Melissa had two brain shunt operations, a surgery which involves implanting a tube into the brain to drain excess fluid to another part in the body.

Melissa’s shunt malfunctioned in April of 2018 when she fell pregnant.

She sustained brain damage and another shunt was installed. She gave birth prematurely at 30 weeks.

The child was in the neonatal intensive care unit while Melissa had to re-learn how to eat, walk and talk. The mother and daughter went home in January of 2019, one week after each other.

"Both were getting better and things were starting to settle down a little," Hall said.

Then in April, Hall’s son Craig fell into the Water of Leith on his way home from a party.

He was known for walking home, regardless of how far he had to go or what time it was.

At some point he strayed off George St towards Willowbank.

He fell 5m face first on to the concrete. Two young women heard the splash and called emergency services.

"To get to him took time and by the time they got to him he was very cold."

Craig survived — it took paramedics 20 minutes to restart his heart — but he remained in a coma with brain damage.

The family were hopeful he could recover, as Melissa had bounced back from her brain damage, but the doctors said it would not be possible.

Two weeks later his life support was turned off.

"There’s miracle stories of people surviving. With Craig that wasn’t meant to be."

The family were coping any way they could, including 5-year-old Jack Taylor, Melissa’s son.

Regularly Jack’s father woke up and found the boy cutting up cereal boxes and making them into random pictures.

Jack had been surrounded by artists all his life. His mother was a makeup artist, his father a tattoo artist. She was an artist herself, and her husband Doug enjoyed photography and making things. Jack liked to make art too.

After Craig’s death Jack became engrossed in it.

"He would wake up early in the morning and head straight for the dining room table," Hall said.

"It was his way of regulating."

She dealt with things much the same way, Hall said.

"When Melissa was in hospital I was not coping very well.

"I was heading for a breakdown."

She told the doctor that she felt an urge to run away, so the doctor suggested she visit somebody out of town.

"I went to a friend of mine and she gave me a basket with beautiful different kinds of yarns, different colours, different textures, and knitting needles."

She started knitting squares and planned to make a blanket for her granddaughter.

The process helped her keep busy and process her feelings.

"It was when I starting thinking how to put it together that Craig had his accident.

"I realised then I would carry on knitting.

She never made the blanket and never stopped making squares. But now she had ventured out into other shapes and objects, with no end result in mind.

She titled the project "Not a Jersey" and so far had 25kg of knitting with more than 1200 pieces.

She loved the process and had learned to spin and dye the wool herself.

As a master of visual arts graduate and a qualified community arts facilitator, she knew the wonders of art, but her lived experience was what made her realise how powerful and healing it could be, Hall said.

She believed art should be available to everybody, but social pressure led children to believe that the quality of a drawing was the only indicator of artistic talent.

That caused some of them to feel self-conscious and give up on all art, which led to adults who did not create.

"If you tell somebody you’re an artist, they ask you if you paint. Then the next one after that is if you sculpt. And then after that they don’t know what to ask you."

But that was not how it had to be. People could find what they liked to do and enjoy the act of creation without worrying about an end result.

"I’m a fibre installation artist with process-based art. What the hell is that?

"Some crazy woman going up and down ladders."

She held wool workshops for schools to help share what she had discovered.

The lessons were hands on and colourful, which proved popular with pupils

She had been told by teachers that pupils who usually struggled to sit still or made trouble were actually the most engaged.

She and Melissa have taken their experience with art and together written two children’s books advocating for the use of art and the imagination to process emotions.

Their first book, titled Art Musketeers, is autobiographical in nature. It explores what happened to Melissa and Craig, and how Jack responded.

The second book, Art Musketeers Kalahari Adventure, is more fictional. The three children discover a portal to Africa and adventure together before returning home, their mother admiring their imagination.

The third book is yet to be completed, but it will explore a universe of wool with creatures made of the material.

Hall has also used art to help Craig’s friends deal with the loss in more direct ways.

In 2019, on what would have been his 27th birthday, the family met his friends beside the Water of Leith at Willowbank.

There they set up tables and enjoyed making fabric prints together, using Craig’s hospital syringes to apply dye to the sheets.

Craig’s friends kept walking past the area in their daily life, so together they set out to create new memories there, Hall said.

It was a way to take back the space and process his death in a healthy and enjoyable way.

"What do you gain out of playing the victim? Nothing."

What happened was terrible, but she was determined to take what she had learned and use it to help others process their own problems.

"We want to make him proud. We want to make our grandchildren proud."