Drawings worth a thousand words

In 2017, Petty Officer Lee-Anne Cooper was asked by a shipmate to take a photo of him in full service uniform with a big smile on his face.

CAPTION: ADF Arts for Recovery, Resilience, Teamwork and Skills program participant Petty Officer Lee-Anne Cooper with her family at the showcase event at the University of Canberra’s Inspire Centre. Story by Flight Lieutenant Thomas McCoy. Photo by Corporal Madhur Chitnis.

It turned out to be a photo she could never forget.

As an imagery specialist in the Navy, taking photographs isn’t out of the ordinary, but what made this one different from the rest was Petty Officer David Finney ending his life less than two years later.

Fast forward to May 2023, Petty Officer Cooper joined the ADF Arts for Recovery, Resilience, Teamwork and Skills (ARRTS) program to assist with the emotions and trauma, which had compounded over time.

The four-week program involves experienced mentors teaching music, writing and visual art techniques to help participants discover new outlets and enhance their wellbeing.

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CAPTION: Petty Officer Lee-Anne Cooper displays the artwork she produced during the ADF ARRTS program. Photo by Corporal Madhur Chitnis.

Overall, Petty Officer Cooper had enjoyed her 22 years of Navy service, during which she captured imagery from Kokoda to Afghanistan.

“I started at 14 in the Navy Cadets and have been gifted with many amazing experiences, but it hasn’t always been smooth sailing and I feel I’ve suffered some ‘moral injury’ along the way,” Petty Officer Cooper said.

“On one occasion, we were at an overseas work event involving international sporting teams, being held in their clubhouse, and one of the senior sporting figures asked me to be seated on a stool at the front of the room with my back towards the group.”

What happened next greatly affected Petty Officer Cooper.

“As a well-known pop song played over the PA system, a rugby player began singing the most obscene lyrics to me, and I felt humiliated in front of an audience that included my work colleagues,” she said.

“Although I received a formal letter of apology, I’ve carried that paralysing experience with me ever since, and couldn’t talk about it until recently.”

Through the ARRTS program, Petty Officer Cooper has been able to express her emotions using a wide range of visual art creations, including clay sculptures, metalwork, embroidery and mixed media.

One of these was a drawing of herself as a bubble, floating upside down, with voices screaming at her from all around.

“When I showed this to my husband he said: ‘I hear you’, which was totally unexpected,” she said.

“Words are sometimes hard for me, but the ARRTS program gave me the voice to share how I feel.”

Tackling the traumatic clubhouse event, Petty Officer Cooper’s major artwork was a physical representation of this.

A minimalist white box with red velvet curtains beckoned the viewer to bend down and look inside, where they were faced with the back of a hunched-over woman sitting on a block.

The viewer then saw the woman’s reflection, and their own face, in a mirror with haunting black eyes staring back at them.

“When my mum saw this at the showcase event at the end of the program she cried, hugged me, and we just stood there together,” Petty Officer Cooper said.

“She knew how raw this was and whispered ‘I’m so proud of you’.”

And in memory of Petty Officer Finney, Petty Officer Cooper drew a picture of a city with him in it.

“I’ve drawn a city that’s contorted towards the back and I included a little building flying up into the sky because that’s him returning home,” she said.

To continue using the creative skills she learnt during the program, Petty Officer Cooper plans to re-purpose a shed in the family’s backyard into an art studio.

“I’m now thinking more creatively again, walking out of the four-week experience with lifelong friends, and have received great support from the mentors and staff,” she said.

“I’d definitely recommend ARRTS to anyone.”

The next ADF ARRTS program will be held in Canberra from October 29 to November 24.


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