“Touched by Polio: from casts to catharsis” is an art exhibition which reflects on the often evoked “torture” associated with childhood polio and transforms that painful memory into a thing of value and/or beauty – much like the lives of Australia’s polio survivors who became artists themselves, or family/friends of the artists who created each unique exhibition piece.

As Polio Australia receives no government or any other recurrent funding, the “Touched by Polio” exhibition art works have been generously donated by the artists for auction/sale, with all proceeds going to assist Polio Australia in continuing our work.

Poliomyelitis (also known as polio or infantile paralysis) is a highly infectious disease caused by a virus. It invades the nervous system, and can cause total paralysis in a matter of hours. It can strike at any age, but mainly affects children under three (over 50% of all cases). The virus enters the body through the mouth and multiplies in the intestine. Initial symptoms are fever, fatigue, headache, vomiting, stiffness in the neck and pain in the limbs. One in 100 infections leads to irreversible paralysis (usually in the legs). Amongst those paralysed, 5%-10% die when their breathing muscles become immobilised. Although polio paralysis is the most visible sign of polio infection, fewer than 1% of polio infections ever result in paralysis. Poliovirus can spread widely before cases of paralysis are seen. As most people infected with poliovirus have no signs of illness, they are never aware they have been infected. After initial infection with poliovirus, the virus is shed intermittently in faeces for several weeks. During that time, polio can spread rapidly through the community.

Children with residual polio paralysis were treated with braces and taught to compensate for lost function with the help of callipers, crutches and wheelchairs. The use of devices such as rigid braces known as “Double Thomas Splints” and body casts were also used, ostensibly to prevent their still growing spines and limbs from becoming deformed due to muscle contraction. Unfortunately, these treatments also tended to cause muscle atrophy due to the limited movement allowed.

The following excerpt from “I Used to Jump Puddles”, a polio story by Gary Buchanan, which is published on the Polio NSW website, says it all:

“I remember arriving at hospital at the ripe old age of thirteen and immediately being harnessed in yet another steel frame with weights off each end to stretch me. The session on the rack lasted for three months when the doctor realised that I had not quite as yet stopped growing and my [spinal fusion] operation would have to be deferred for another two years in his estimation.

This was all very well except during those next two years I had to wear a full plaster cast from my neck to over my hips to stop any further deterioration to my spine and hips after their fine stretching job.

During the summer months it was agony, I remember, with my cast being soaked with perspiration and not being able to scratch the unbearable itchiness.

The cast was only changed every six months by suspending me from the ceiling by a support under my neck and once it was removed each time, believe me, you couldn’t get too close to it as it was really on the nose.

For the first year of this period I was able to continue my schooling by correspondence from a place called Blackfriars College which wasn’t too bad but the following year back at school with the plaster cast was hell.

Ultimately at the age of fifteen I was again admitted to hospital for the spinal fusion but not before another stretch session. At the time of this latest stretch session I developed an allergy to the Elastoplast that secured my leg weights so that all the weights had to be transferred to hang off my neck over the head of the bed.

Eventually the operation was performed and even though I contracted pneumonia afterwards and nearly died, I came through fighting fit. The relief of not having a plaster cast any more I could not put into words . . .”.

Twenty-four artists who have been ‘touched by polio’ in some way — survivors, family, friends — have contributed to the exhibition to create fourteen leg and twenty-one torso plaster-cast-based art works.

This was quite a ‘cathartic’ experience for many, as they relived the pain of polio infection and a broken childhood before their casts metamorphosed from clinical ‘restriction’ to creative ‘release’.

The artists’ creative expressions are many and varied, and the mediums used include textiles, paint, decoupage, and anything else they could think of!

Although a couple of artists made their own casts, the primary cast-makers were two staff and six students of Latrobe University’s National Centre for Prosthetics and Orthotics and five of their children, whose legs were used as moulds for the casts. The torso casts were moulded around child-sized mannequins. Photos and videos of the “production day” can be seen here.

In addition to the art works you can view a looped visual presentation of children wearing plaster casts and calipers here (coming soon).

It is important to note that, following decades of striving to achieve normality, these “polio children” are now in their 50’s or older, and experiencing the often debilitating Late Effects of Polio, plunging them back into a life filled with daily pain and increasing muscle weakness. A key problem is that there are very few health professionals who know about the Late Effects, leaving Australia’s polio survivors without appropriate diagnosis or management strategies. Rectifying this situation is the focus of Polio Australia.

Listen here (coming soon) to a looped audio soundtrack of polio survivors talking about their experience of childhood polio and how they are now living with the Late Effects of Polio.