Like many farmers around the country at the moment, Melissa Smyth’s days are dominated by one thing.

“Seeding, seeding, seeding. Trying to keep the machines going and make sure that the seed’s in the ground,” she said.

An aerial of Melissa Smyth seeding.(ABC News: Trent Murphy)

But when the farmer is not out on her property on the South Australian-Victorian border, or working as a volunteer ambulance officer, she’s found painting or creating mosaics in her shed, which is transforming into an arts studio.

“I’m quite an anxious person generally, so to come out into the shed and just create something and see it come together it’s just a bit of a break. It does help you relax,” she said.

Melissa Smyth in her arts shed.(Landline: Kerry Staight)

Ms Smyth’s new-found passion for art was sparked by what’s known as the Pinnaroo Project.

For three years, Pinnaroo in the Murray Mallee region has been the subject of a scientific study examining whether more arts and culture can improve the mental health and wellbeing of an entire community.

The arts hub in Pinnaroo.(Landline: Kerry Staight)

The lead researcher is Professor Robyn Clark from South Australia’s Flinders University.

“We have really good evidence why art in health works, but what we didn’t know was how well an arts and health project would work in rural Australia,” she said.

More than 120 workshops and events were held by visiting and local artists, ranging from lantern making and leather work to photography sessions and metal floral art. 

Resident Chris Jenzen has attended most of the workshops, which were funded by a range of arts, health, regional, and government bodies.

“I’m addicted to them,” she said.

“I come in here and I feel a little bit flat sometimes, but always fabulous at the end.”

Jewellery workshop participant Chris Jenzen says the events have become “addictive”.(Landline: Kerry Staight)

Results speak for themselves

As well as anecdotal evidence, the university research team has returned each year to collect data using questionnaires and clinical tests like cholesterol and blood pressure measurements.

An average of 190 people took part each year, which Professor Clark said was a scientifically acceptable sample size in a town with a population of fewer than 800.

Researcher Robyn Clark has the results of the Pinnaroo Project.(Landline: Kerry Staight)

One group of participants in the study took part in arts workshops and one group did not.

And now the results are in.

“We have shown how arts and health can really improve the health and wellness of a rural Australian town,” Professor Clark said.

Rates of depression dropped across the whole community, but was most noticeable in the group doing art.

Making metal poppies is one of the art projects.(Landline: Kerry Staight)

The number of arts participants reporting moderate to severe depression decreased by 10 per cent between 2022 and 2023.

There were also some encouraging lifestyle findings.

“Both adults and children who were involved in the arts activities definitely were eating more healthily,” Professor Clark said.

“There was also a reduction in smoking among the adults.”

‘Greater connectedness in the community’

Three quarters of the participants in the arts activities were women, but the project has made an impact on Pinnaroo’s men too, including farmer Giles Oster.

“I feel there’s been a much greater connectedness in the community,” he said.

Farmer Giles Oster says the project has had a positive influence on the community. (Landline: Kerry Staight)

In one of the Pinnaroo Project’s most ambitious storytelling events, Mr Oster worked with other farmers and a visiting artist to bring their day job to life in poetry.

He said the project had not only given him a fresh perspective on the positives of farming, it had also made it easier to talk about the tough times.

“You go to sport to watch your kids play or perform, or you’re in the silo line-up at harvest time, and we still have social interactions which is fantastic,” Mr Oster said.

“But because wellbeing has been a focus of the [Pinnaroo Project] study, it’s easier and it’s natural to go to those things and say, ‘What’s going on with you? How’s your world? Tell me about you’.”

Giles Oster and daughter Johanna make lanterns as part of an art workshop for the Pinnaroo Project.(ABC Back Roads)

A separate economic report found the project also made financial sense.

For every dollar invested in the Pinnaroo Project, the community got $2.30 back, with less reliance on limited health services among the cost savings.

Not every positive finding was considered statistically significant, and some health indicators like obesity levels did not improve.

But Professor Clark said overall the findings were strong enough to extend the program in Pinnaroo and beyond if funding was secured.

“The combination of the wellness indicators and health indicators, plus the economics, is a terrific model to bring to other communities,” she said.

And Ms Smyth agrees.

“It would be treat for everybody to have a chance to have an arts program so that everyone can feel better,” she said.

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Stories from farms and country towns across Australia, delivered each Friday.

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