I walked down a light-filled hallway past several works of art hung with black ribbon in the windows. Our first performance of a Broadway Revue was over, and now the remaining crowd was touring the long-term care community, looking at art made by the people who live there. Two women in their mid-nineties sat in front of the large work of art in the center, their wheelchairs pointed toward each other. They were grasping each other’s hands. I knew them both well from their weekly attendance at the Open Art Studio I facilitate in a long-term care community. I recognized their family members standing behind them.
“Did you see my picture?” Alice* said, gesturing to the drawing behind her as I knelt down to her eye level.
“Did you know she’s an artist?” said her friend Helen.
“Yes,” I answered both of them, smiling.
Art Therapy in Practice in an Open Studio
Alice’s art piece is a grid filled with faces drawn with marker. A product of months of work, I was glad to see how proud she was. The grid was an intervention I offered after watching her repeatedly draw faces with pencil, only to erase them seconds later. She would often end Open Studio sessions with a blank sheet of paper covered in eraser dust. “I used to be a great artist,” she would say. “I had a stroke, you know.” When I gave her the grid, I encouraged her to use marker as her drawing tool, so she would be unable to erase. I asked her to think of each 3’’ x 4’’ square in the grid as a chance to start over. The piece as a whole would be a record of the way her drawing skills change from week to week, or at least that’s how I thought of it. Several weeks later, when Alice saw the finished grid, she covered up the faces she disapproved of with her hands. “These ones are horrible! But some of them are good. There’s something about the eyes…” Alice and I struck up a deal. If I would cut squares out of paper to cover the faces she didn’t like, she would fill them with new faces that she approved of. Alice didn’t need a record of her process. She needed a work of art she could be proud of.
The Eyes Have It
Alice titled her grid, “The Eyes Have It,” and proudly proclaimed, “No erasures,” in her artist statement. The day of the Spring Art Show, she was one of many artists showing off their work in front of their families, friends, staff, and fellow residents of the community. While some art therapists may argue that all artwork created in an art therapy context should remain confidential, others tout the benefits of exhibiting art work when the artists choose to do so. In a long-term care community dedicated to person-centered care
, a few of the specific benefits of an art show are:
• An opportunity to be proud of creative accomplishments, and to build community by sharing them with attendees
• A celebration of continued growth in older age
• Maintaining opportunities to make choices and promote independence through selection of artwork, titles, and artist statements
• Maintaining dignity by adhering to professional standards of quality while hanging artwork
• Building enthusiasm for expressive arts participation as residents view one another’s work
More on the Arts
In my previous articles for Chicago Bridge, I have asked “Why arts and aging?”
and discussed creative writing as an artistic process
in art therapy. Erica Hornthal began her series on dance/movement therapy
as a therapueitc intervention for persons living with dementia
. Christy Schoenwald described sensory stimulation
Thank you to Orin Zebest for the photo and to Elyse Baylis for editing this article.