At a group exhibition for the art class she attends, Ann Hartnett is puzzling over her own self-portrait. It’s a cheerful image of a smiling figure against a bright red background but Hartnett wants to know why it’s there, front and centre in the show.
“You painted it,” her daughter reminds her.
“Did I?” she asks.
Hartnett made the painting last November, but has no memory of it: “Every time [she sees it], it’s a wonderful experience for her to discover that it’s her,” art educator Sarah Bennett says.
Hartnett is participating in Artful Moments, a program run by the Art Gallery of Hamilton (AGH) and aimed at people with dementia and their caregivers. It is part of a growing trend toward offering art therapy inside museums, as the institutions try reaching out to all sections of the community.
Once a week in Hamilton, participants attend a session in which they discuss works in the gallery’s collection and then try their hand at drawing, painting and sculpture. The self-portraits were inspired by the use of colour and line in the work of Ojibwa artist Norval Morrisseau. The group also discussed the Bruegel-Bosch Bus, a 1997 piece by Canadian artist Kim Adams in which he turned a Volkswagen van into a claustrophobic metropolis of toy building blocks and plastic figurines. Then participants created their own assemblages.
“It’s my favourite program,” says Bennett, who also leads school groups through the gallery. “The conversations we have are always surprising to me. They see something, it triggers a memory … they have unique insights.”
The AGH started its program several years ago inside St. Peter’s Hospital, a local facility that cares for older adults, but the gallery decided to bring it home.
“We went social rather than clinical,” says Tor Lukasik-Foss, director of programming and education at the gallery. “Can it be structured so there’s a lot of breathing space, and laughter?”
While the AGH concentrates on the social aspect of art therapy, researchers across the country are looking at its medical benefits for elders with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. For example, in Montreal, Dr. Olivier Beauchet, a professor of geriatrics with McGill University who works at the Jewish General Hospital, will soon publish a study showing dramatic decreases in mortality rates when patients were encouraged to make art – and the art was then installed in the wards for medical staff to see.
“The painting is a demonstration: If [the patient] is able to paint this lovely canvas, then she is able to feed herself and you don’t need to feed her,” Beauchet said, explaining how the art therapy helps build cognition and mobility in patients directly, but also indirectly improves their care.
Outside the hospital setting, galleries are increasingly offering art as medicine themselves: Beauchet is a consultant to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, a leader in the field that now has the largest education and art-therapy centre in any North American museum. The doctors are looking to rehabilitate patients, but the museums have turned to art therapy for their own reasons, as part of a move to attract different audiences and use their collections in new ways.
The Art Gallery of Hamilton is in a deep rethink about what it means to be truly accessible, to take our role as a public educator really seriously,” said Lukasik-Foss, explaining that the main purpose of the program is simply social.
The participants are in the early stages of the disease, a period when a diagnosis of dementia can be emotionally devastating, causing people to retreat inside.
“We want to say, ‘No, no. Come downtown, come into a main institution. We welcome you,’” Bennett says.
Bennett and fellow educator Tyler Van Holst, who is responsible for the hands-on part of the in-house program, received special training on working with dementia patients before they began, and have adapted their techniques accordingly. Because some participants are losing their ability to understand logical sequences, Van Holst must always hand out media one item at a time – first pencils for drawing, and only later the paints to colour the art – so that participants aren’t confused by the choice.
Meanwhile, Bennett’s discussions with the group can be greatly enlivened by the way their disease is removing social inhibitions: One participant is adamant that she detests the Bruegel-Bosch Bus.
“You hate it! Great. Why do you hate it?” Bennett asks.
The training has also taught Bennett that emotions remain after reasoning has been lost – and that is what she should appeal to when working with participants. Hartnett, for example, made an instant emotional connection with modelling clay in a sculpture session. She can’t recognize her own painting in the group’s show, but stop beside a vitrine of clay figurines and she can easily pick out her own work from a collection of very similar pieces.
“The cat,” she says definitively, pointing to a small sculpture in the middle.