An unlikely connection has developed between Melbourne artist Jeffrey Kelson, who is receiving palliative care, and his art student, a palliative care physician.

Melbourne artist Jeffrey Kelson is known for his thought-provoking portraits, several of which have been exhibited at the Melbourne Holocaust Museum. He believes a portrait is a window into a subject’s heart and mind.

However, after being diagnosed with late-stage pancreatic cancer, it wasn’t this style of art that Mr Kelson was drawn to. As soon as he felt well enough to return to his studio, he started work on a series of colourful collages.

“At one point, my wife came into the room and commented on how bright they were and how full of life force. She was surprised that I could create pieces that were so energetic when I felt so ill. I hadn’t really thought about it. I just needed to work,” he told InSight+.

Unlikely friendship: when the palliative care doctor becomes the student  - Featured Image
Melbourne artist Jeffrey Kelson

The 40 uplifting and life-affirming creations have been entitled “Celebration” and are being exhibited in May at the Quadrant Gallery in Hawthorn, Victoria.

“I think this collection of work is vibrant and bright because I don’t want to regret anything in the past, or be fearful of what might lie ahead,” Mr Kelson said.

Art as therapy

Palliative care specialist Dr Eric Fairbank was one of Mr Kelson’s art students for several years before Mr Kelson’s diagnosis.

He said Mr Kelson’s approach to his diagnosis has confirmed his belief that the best outcomes of cancer treatment are achieved when they’re complemented by the patient’s own resources of mind, will and spirit.

“These include exercise; diet; meditation; finding purpose; making the most of music, nature, art; and attention to personal relationships,” he said.

Unlikely friendship: when the palliative care doctor becomes the student  - Featured Image
Palliative care specialist Dr Eric Fairbank

Art is often suggested as a type of therapy for terminal cancer and palliative care patients. Studies (here and here) have found that art can help reduce distress, anxiety, depression, and pain as well as increase a patient’s wellbeing.

“Art therapy is one way of helping a person receiving palliative care to rise above the deterioration of their physical health,” Dr Fairbank said.

“It is a path to mindfulness that locates them in the present moment…. It gives them a focus away from the hassles of day-to-day life.”  

Dr Fairbank said this philosophy leads to many benefits, both physical, psychological and emotional.

“Completion of an artwork requires concentration, sets a goal to be achieved, gives a purpose for that time, adds meaning to life and creates good memories along the way,” Dr Fairbank said.

“There are also benefits for other people who are inspired by this approach, leading everyone closer to acceptance and peace of mind. Not everyone will necessarily live longer than expected like Jeffrey, but they will live better.”

The journey to celebration

“Celebration” is all about capturing the essence of Mr Kelson’s life before and after his diagnosis.

“Through a rich palette of colours and intricate compositions, I have expressed ‘windows’ into my journey — reflections on joy and energy, fragility, acceptance, optimism and resilience.

“The works represent the flow of my life and are windows into my life’s experiences and a response to my diagnosis. I have called them ‘Celebration’ because they are a celebration of my life. I want them to be both uplifting and life-affirming. They are intended as an optimistic statement despite my diagnosis,” he continued.

Being imaginative and looking for original ways to express himself has inspired him to face his challenges in a positive way.

“Working on my art has given me the strength to fight my battle head-on and perhaps it has contributed to my longer-than-expected survival,” he pondered.

Mr Kelson has been a long-time patient and volunteer at the Cabrini Hospital in Melbourne. As a thank you, he is donating all proceeds from sales to the establishment of their new palliative care unit.

“I hope to inspire and leave a legacy for others suffering from inoperable cancer and other serious illnesses. I hope they can be inspired to find their own ‘Celebration’, whatever form that may take,” he concluded.

The exhibition, “Celebration: A Vibrant Artistic Journey”, by Jeffrey Kelson is being displayed at the Quadrant Gallery, 72 Barkers Road, Hawthorn, VIC, from 8 to 31 May 2024.

Subscribe to the free InSight+ weekly newsletter here. It is available to all readers, not just registered medical practitioners.

4 thoughts on “The power of art in palliative care

  1. Anonymous says:

    These paintings are wonderful, I wish I could visit the exhibition I’m sure they are even more spectacular viewed in person. I’m in the UK so I’m grateful to see them online. I’m spreading the word to everyone I know in Melbourne! It also shows that palliative care is about Living to the max.

  2. Kay Ronec says:

    Jeffrey, I have been admiring your attitude to the pancreatic cancer diagnosis since the day I became aware of the situation.
    You took this challange head on by making most of every moment left to you, enjoying creating art, meeting with friends as often as possible,
    travelling, simply enjoying sunshine and music, walking daily and many other activities. Many of these activities occured during the very debilitating
    teatments you have been undergoing.
    And your creative juices just blossomed into a collection of wonderfull bright and happy images reflecting on your life’s journey.
    Jeffrey I admire your strength, resilence, generosity, and especially your creativity. I hope you will be able to create many more of these wonderful
    pieces of art.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Dear Jeffrey,
    Your attitude to life is indeed uplifting.
    One can only be inspired by the way you are facing a most difficult time in your life, in making the most of it in a most positive and meaningful way.
    Hearty congratulations on producing a most meaningful exhibition of your artworks, which will help to raise money for the Cabrini Hospital Paliative Care.

  4. Irene Zydek says:

    Jeffrey, you are a celebration! I smile every time I think of you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *