A Conspicuous Object – The Maitland Hospital I was invited along with nine other artists to respond to the history and stories about the hospital from the 1840’s to the present day. The exhibition presents both familiar and unfamiliar moments, invites reflection, offers challenges, and evokes the complex and layered nature of this object that has peered across Maitland since the 1840s. The exhibition also highlights the ways art, history and health can intertwine to tell stories, offer distraction and engage community memories.
Curated by Joe Eisenberg, Janis Wilton and Cheryl Farrell
With A Conspicuous Object I chose to focus on the dedicated women whose roles are central to the history of Maitland Hospital from the middle of the 19th century to the present day. My textile sculptural heads (and accompanying study oil pastel drawings) depict doctors, nurses, kitchen staff, volunteers, laundresses and receptionists; from the first woman in charge Matron Elizabeth Morrow in 1879 to a contemporary Emergency Physician. Relating to the current Covid pandemic, one of the textiles is in memory of Mary (Mollie) Carr, a 23 year old trainee nurse who died in 1919 within a week of becoming ill with the Spanish Flu. Though each is a solitary figure, these armless three-dimensional textile sculptures bear a relationship with each in the manner of a collective hospital team. Some are literal and others more abstract with textile and found objects dictating their professions and duties within the hospital. Stitching together fragments of uniforms, scrubs, clothing, bedsheets, curtains, towels, bandages, tea towels, scarfs, lace, ribbons and gloves, a sense of memory, activities and events from the past are made present. I could visualise these women walking through the halls and wards of the hospital.
The Making of the Sculptures
My mother was an obsessive sewer and mender. As I grew up she would constantly be laying out and cutting patterns on the loungeroom floor, darning socks, fixing things and sitting at the sewing machine. She made pyjamas, shirts, dresses, shorts, pants, almost all our clothing. It was partly the frugality of the times but also probably as a creative outlet to escape the mundanity of other housework and domestic duties. As a teenager my sisters and I would go with her to rummage through Op shops looking for clothes, fabrics, trinkets and oddities relating to past decades and generations. Her resourcefulness and creativity was contagious and I think has fed into my making and sewing these textile sculptures.
I’ve used new and recycled textiles in these sculptures for the heads and clothing, an array of materials, colours, textures to portray women in hospitals as sewing and mending clothes relates to traditional women’s work – craft, needle and thread, domesticity and femininity. Attaching the heads onto wooden bases.
The clothing and uniforms we wear relates to place and identity. These textile works are abstracted, not always obviously recognisable to a hospital setting. I have used real uniforms (scrubs and shirts) and reimagined others Incorporating found objects to represent their specific tasks within the hospital.
Sourced fabrics from op shops – sorting colours and textures. Bed sheets, pillow cases, blankets, towels, linen, curtains, nighties, stockings, gloves, hats, tea towels, using these materials with reference to their jobs – washing and rewashing, making and remaking beds, wrapping and rewrapping bandages; repetitious tasks that are, daily, weekly, monthly, yearly. Historically, nurses were dressed in stiff, white and blue uniforms reflective of the white surrounds of the hospital wards, walls, floors, ordered, spotless and hygienic. A sense of efficiency.
The wooden bases and latex and foam heads are under-wrapped in malleable layers with a soft underfelt of various stretchy materials to build up the heads to a fuller form, then completed with outer layers of carefully selected fabrics cut and stitched over the underfelt. All heads are featureless and void of expression, stylised to represent the many workers of diverse backgrounds who have passed through the hospital over the decades. I have avoided using obvious flesh tones in the faces, instead blending different tactile textures and various shades of deep reds, soft pinks and maroons. Perhaps I chose these colours to represent blood or life.
For the hair, I cut latex into long narrow strips, stitched material around them, then coiled and layered the strips to achieve shape and bulk. To finish I would cover with lace, felt and blanket materials. With the figures from 19th and early 20th centuries (eg. Matron Elizabeth Morrow and Volunteer Elizabeth Ann Heyes) I have favoured black lace to denote the era and hairstyles of the time where the hair is stacked or coifed.
For the 20th century sculptures, the fabrics, colours and textures become more contemporary, brighter and lighter incorporating floral and geometric patterns – chiffon, crepe, linen, satin, rayon, nylon, hessian. I rummaged through boxes of offcuts, of children’s and women’ clothing – jumpers, dresses, shirts and shorts, cut fabrics and wool of all colours and textures, velvets, cottons, flannel, silk ribbons, handkerchiefs, stockings, scarves, bras, petticoats, hats, beanies, ties and gloves. I used lace for the hair of early 19th and 20th century subjects and various wools for the more contemporary 20th century ones.
Where applicable I’ve used brooches, earrings and spectacles for distinguishable features. In the case of the Night Nurse, buttons and a watch.
Sculptural Heads Descriptions
First Matron Elizabeth Morrow
I used a black and white photograph of an oil painting of Elizabeth Morrow in her nurse’s uniform to try to capture her likeness. This painting portrays a stoic, determined, strong woman staring directly ahead, her hair bunched with a nurses cap, dark plain dress and a brooch.
Born in Ireland 1842 Elizabeth Morrow migrated to Australia in 1863. As a young woman she gained her nurses training under Nightingale-trained nurse Lucy Osburn at the Sydney Infirmary. Her tasks there included nursing as well as cleaning and scrubbing floors. With Osburn’s recommendation Elizabeth joined Maitland Hospital staff in 1870 as its first trained nurse and two years later was appointed the first female Matron.
As Matron she introduced ‘female nursing’ and was commended for being professional and establishing order and cleanliness and was known as having a pleasant social manner. She could set a limb, sew up and dress a wound as well as any surgeon as well as knowing treatments for fevers and other ailments. Following her death at the age of 44 in 1886 there was great praise for her commitment and for the improvements she made to the economical management of the hospital. She was held in high esteem for her kindness and sympathetic demeanour towards all her of patients and staff.
I’ve dressed her in black, capturing the era of the day, using lace and chiffon and kept her simple and unadorned apart from the large green brooch centred below her collar. Her hair is covered with black lace, bunched on her head with a white lace cap. I wanted her to be a commanding figure.
Charity Worker Elizabeth Ann Heyes
Elizabeth Ann Heyes was born in Manchester England in 1863. She and her husband Rodolph arrived in Brisbane, Australia in 1886. Rodolph worked on the tramways, railways and collieries in the Newcastle and Maitland district, eventually settling with Elizabeth into their home in Church St West Maitland. She took to charity work, supporting soldiers during the Boer War and the First World War and was a life member of Maitland Ambulance Brigade, Maitland Hospital, Maitland Benevolent Society and the Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Association. She was also Patroness of the Maitland branch of the Red Cross Society and Honorary Vice-President of the Maitland branch of the Country Women’s Association.
In 1903 Elizabeth led a band of workers who provided furnishing and equipment in the surgical ward, operating theatre, X-ray and high frequency department and a nurses day room at Maitland Hospital. She worked assiduously on many charity projects and was a member of the committee that erected the soldiers memorial for West Maitland Park and was also responsible for collections around Maitland for the memorial in Hyde Park Sydney.
She put her enormous energies towards helping war widows and orphans and was associated for many years with the Blind Institute of New South Wales. She died in 1940 a year after she was included in the Kings Birthday wishes and was celebrated for her outstanding selfless commitment to helping others and tireless campaigning for those in need. As quoted in her obituary noting her outstanding commitment to help others over 47 years of charitable work ‘Mrs Heyes was described by members of the Hospital Committee as an Australian Florence Nightingale’.
As reference to make my sculpture I used the 1940 obituary head and shoulders photograph from the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate newspaper. From that and earlier photographs she appeared as a slightly eccentric woman with a kind but determined demeanour. I’ve created her with materials of the day, dressed in a long flowing black lace gown with an art nouveau patterned pink neck with white collar and a deep maroon chenille face and given her a mass of dark hair bunched on her head and horn-rimmed glasses and long dangling black earrings.
Remembering the short life of Nurse Mary (Mollie) Carr
Mary “Mollie Carr’ was born in Queensland in 1896. She was training to be a nurse at Maitland Hospital when the Spanish Flu arrived at the end of the First World War early in February 1919. The first diagnosis of influenza patients was in April and over the next 8 months there was a growing number of influenza patients. Deaths from the disease peaked in June and July and Mary Mollie Carr who was in her fourth year of nurses training had joined other Maitland Hospital nurses working the wards of suffering patients. She contracted the disease and passed away within a week.
I chose Mary Mollie Carr for her commitment as a young woman and as a figurehead to remember all Australian nurses who should be recognised for their service around the time of WW1. Almost 100 years on since the Spanish Flu, Covid19 arrived in Australia which make Mollie’s story even more poignant and relevant. She is dressed in white. I used a stretched nylon material to sew together her flowing dress; white cotton shirts for her blouse and nurse’s cap. A lace mask representing the butter cloth masks used at the time covers a deep maroon chenille face.
Due to the baby boom after the two world wars many more women were having children. Since 1903 the Maitland Hospital has been caring for women and babies who live in the Maitland, Cessnock, Kurri Kurri and Dungog area, and other women and babies from across the Hunter New England Region.
Raised on a textile mount, a white cane pram represents the maternity wards, nurses and women who have given birth at Maitland Hospital from its very beginnings to the present day. Linking the decades – the 1ate 19th century castor oil bottles and mid 20th century ½ pint milk. Bottles symbolise both motherhood and the care given in the journey from pregnancy to birth and the postnatal support mothers receive from nurses and midwives at the hospital.
In the early part of the nineteenth century, nursing was regarded as a lowly occupation which was taken on by convict women and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Maitland Hospital tended to engage a husband and wife with the wife being required to do the cleaning and washing as well as tending to the female patients and the husband as an attendant and to keep records. No particular skills or training were required. It was a very hierarchical system with an emphasis on discipline, hygiene, hard work and long hours. It was also a system that quarantined nursing as a female occupation, although women were required to leave the profession on marriage. Of course nursing is the 24 hour engine of the hospital. Maitland became a prominent training hospital for nurses from 1902 to 1987. Photographs of nurses at Maitland Hospital at different times illustrate this.
My Graduation Nurse wears a blue buttoned up uniform under a headdress of gloves. Sourcing through boxes of vintage and contemporary gloves I stitched together layers of cascading gloves to represent the nurses who graduated at Maitland Hospital over the decades. On receiving their diploma at the graduation ceremony the new nurses would present in their ironed uniforms, starched caps and white gloves – the white gloves to represent commitment, service and hygiene.
A Beacon of Light Night Nurse
I chose to make Night Nurse to illustrate the changes brough on by a new modern century. The arrival of electricity in Maitland in 1922 would have brought vast changes to the workings of the hospital. I constructed the Night Nurse to be tall, upright, resilient and efficient, having a strong presence. She wears a full-length blue uniform buttoned up to her neck, a watch and an early 20th century cap with a light globe on her head. The globe represents both a major technological advancement and her presence, service, comfort and a new era.
In the Kitchen
Looking through newspaper articles I was taken by pictures of elderly women who had given long service as cooks and waitresses for much of their working life at Maitland Hospital. Kitchen work in a hospital is high pressure with tight schedules and heavy workloads. I visited some of the staff at the hospital kitchen in 2020, where it was a hive of activity preparing food for the wards. The women were friendly with a spirit of camaraderie and good humour. The head cook kindly supplied me with a cook’s shirt for my sculpture ‘In the Kitchen’. I used this peppermint striped buttoned shirt as the uniform, connecting the head, plaster hand (with nail polish to underline the female workforce) and stove element as one entity to emphasise the multiple tasks within the kitchen at any one time.
The Emergency Physician was the last sculpture I completed – of a contemporary doctor at the hospital in 2021 during the Covid Pandemic. I was supplied with an Emergency Physician’s scrubs which I cut and sewed onto the long narrow figure of the sculpture with her job title embossed. Her red woollen face is stitched together like a patchwork referring to a surgeon’s work. She wears a white mask as a reference to hospital practice and the current Covid pandemic; a century on since Nurse Mary Mollie Carr passed away from the Spanish flu in 1919 tending to sick patients at the hospital. A fine strip of early 20th century lace is sewn at the base of her neck as a marker or reference to the history of the medical staff. Until well into the twentieth century, the doctors at Maitland Hospital were male. The later twentieth century witnessed changes to hospital professions as they are known today. Rigid discipline was relaxed; starched uniforms were replaced by more practical and comfortable uniforms and women filled all medical roles including doctors, medical radiation practitioners, occupational therapists, optometrists, osteopaths, pharmacists, physiotherapists, podiatrists, psychologists, social workers and speech pathologists.
1970’s Receptionist has three black velvet covered phones concertinaed on her head noting the relentless volume of calls that would come in. As receptionist were not required to wear a uniform, I dressed her in classic woollen black and white houndstooth to complement the black phones, the cord of the phone attached to her ear.
The Reception and Switchboard operator at any major hospital is the first person you see or talk to at a hospital. Almost always female, she controls the ebb and flow of communication and is a link to all services within the hospital, receiving and transferring calls to all departments. During the peak hours of the morning at Maitland she handles hundreds of calls every hour. Other duties may include clerical and secretarial.
Pink Lady Volunteer and Yellow Psych Volunteer
The ‘Pink Ladies Volunteers’ began operating in 1970 coming from a line of very dedicated women who began volunteering at the hospital from the late 19th century. Early on they tended to be the wives and daughters of prominent local men – the men were often members of the hospital committee. Elizabeth Heyes was a notable example.
I made two sculptures of the modern-day volunteers – ‘The Pink Ladies’ and the ‘Yellow Psych Volunteers’ who are an integral part of the hospital. These volunteers put their time and energies into fund raising eg. running a shop, organising fetes and events, distributing money where it is needed throughout the hospital and generally doing what they can to assist – comforting patients, listening and talking, writing letters etc.
I received a Pink Ladies smock and a Yellow Psych smock in the mail. Both these items of clothing are bright – the Pink Ladies with white and pink candy stick lines and the Psych Volunteers smock a sunny bright yellow, approachable and friendly. I dressed my Pink Lady in various shades of pink. A soft cotton face with white spots, maroon woollen balls as hair with a plaster hand with pink nail polish like a fascinator on top of her head – a symbol of giving, helping and supporting.
‘Yellow Psych Volunteer’ is dressed in her yellow shirt with a maroon floral smock to match her face and neck. Mustard yellow mohair wool for hair with a plaster hand with nail polish like a hat on top of her head – again to denote volunteer service and a helping hand.
Throughout its history, Maitland Hospital has been serviced by women who did laundry work. From the early years there was a pattern of engaging a husband and wife – the husband worked as the attendant and wardsman, the wife did washing and cleaning.
Being a laundress in the hospital from Victorian times was hard work, back breaking and labour intensive. The bedsheets, hospital gowns, and personal clothing had to be soaked, rinsed and swirled in large tubs of boiling water. Scorching and scalding injuries were common. Laundry was scrubbed over a washboard, starched, blued, bleached, wrung, then hung out to dry. Final tasks were hours of laborious ironing and folding. 19th century irons were very heavy and took a lot of time to heat manually. From the late 19th century the first washing machines were being tested but it wasn’t till the 20th century that machines became ubiquitous, irons lighter and electric and the load became lighter.
I chose to focus my work on a more contemporary 1970s laundress whilst referencing the past. Her clothing is two tone with a soft grey woollen base with velvet buttons and a black velvet wringer handle which extends over the top of her head as if resting on an iron stand. The white towelling face represents the bleaching and starching along with an incredible range of other treatments in the effort to erase all stains. Her flesh and the metal of the iron and handle act as one whole incapsulating the person, the act and the mechanism as one function.