Stories from the West Side-Chapter 3


Although I didn’t have the chance to meet Sylvia, I got to know her through her story and her painting which was displayed at the ‘Celebration of Creativity’ held at Ferry Buildings Gallery, West Vancouver. This three week exhibition highlighted artworks produced by people living with dementia collected over ten years through the Society for the Arts in Dementia Care.    Sylvie  had been an artist and taught others as well as creating her own visual art. Dementia had stopped her participating in many of her favourite activities and she had lost a lot of confidence. But through a programme of creativity, she started to paint again in her eighties. Although she had died prior to the exhibition, her voice was strongly evident both through her paintings and her comments displayed in the exhibition.

You converted me from someone who did not want to participate to someone who is looking forward to each activity. ’

The pictures of her as a teacher in her art room in 1980s showed a vibrant and enthusiastic woman in an artist’s smock; later photos showed her working with an artist as she rediscovered painting during her dementia years. When asked how she felt about the arts activity, she replied

‘You have given me freedom and it tastes so good.’

It was this last statement which stuck with me long after I had left the building.

Ferry Buildings Gallery, West Vancouver

Ferry Buildings Gallery,
West Vancouver

During my own creative writing workshops with people with dementia, the subject of freedom has been voiced repeatedly. Participants expressing fear that they are losing their freedom, their independence and their own homes; the prospect of moving into a care facility being seen as a kind of imprisonment. So I was particularly interested that Sylvia had found ‘freedom’ in painting, this reinforced the need for programmes of creative expression so that that liberty can be experienced in many forms.  This aspect of the exhibition also reinforced the possibility of using visual arts alongside conversation, collecting words as part of the activity.

As well as the exhibition of art works at the Ferry Buildings Gallery, there were several key note speakers who shared their knowledge and expertise. Through my own work, I know the impact of providing a creative activity, people becoming invigorated during my creative writing sessions. However it was through these professionals that I heard more about evidence from scientists, practitioners and new ways of working or collaborating with other artists.  Dalia Gottlieb–Tanaka gave a stimulating talk about the benefits of creativity and ageing with quote from research.

‘Nonpharmacalogical therapies emerge as a useful, versatile and potentially cost effective approach to improve outcomes and quality of life in Alzheimer’s disease and relate disorders for both the person with dementia and caregiver.’  (International study including Dr Howard Feldman UBC)

Vancouver is a fabulous friendly city with several watery inlets along the coastal side of residential and business areas, pine clad mountains forming the backdrop from every point of the city. I took advantage of the vibrant cultural life while I was there and was delighted to

Sylvie's words and pictures

Sylvie’s words and pictures

see a Douglas Coupland exhibition of his ideas about the ‘twenty first century brain’ through Lego installation, his five thousand objects, collages and paintings.  It was if the city itself reinforced all I that I was learning about the ‘twenty first century brain’ at the Ferry Buildings Gallery, that for ages and stages of life     ‘Creativity is a social and psychological need’.

What was the difference between the creations of people with dementia and the ‘high art’ of Douglas Coupland? Who decides? Why do we ignore the contribution that people with dementia can make to cultural life of their community?  In my attempt find an answer, I put some photos on my travel blog asking readers to identify which were paintings by Douglas Coupland, which were those by people with dementia. We all agreed it was difficult to tell!

Speakers at the Ferry Buildings included art therapist Caroline Edasis who spoke about art therapy as a change agent within dementia care communities. She demonstrated the theory with several examples of projects using paint, material, slow time animation, writing plays, poetry and memoir, working with people in a dementia care facility.

‘Art can function as a transformative agent. The very act of creativity serves to       challenge notions of disability, helplessness and dependence. 

Shelley Klammer, counsellor and therapeutic art facilitator, described a programme of arts activities for veterans in dementia care where paintings, weavings and other artistic creations are sold in the community shop, maintaining a feeling usefulness and production.

Whilst in Vancouver I also met with Judith Marcuse, from Art for Social Change, where older people had been asked to represent how they felt about ageing in whatever form they chose. The subsequent exhibition celebrated the diversity of experiences from fears about loss of independence to worries about loss of a good sex life.  The range of submissions was huge and covered a whole spectrum of artistic and literary forms, each one demanding we change attitudes to ageing and older people.

At another event during my study visit, in a different city in neighboroughing USA, I attended a conference focussing on Creative Engagement with People with Memory Loss.  The same messages were being conveyed there, in Racine, Wisconsin, through practitioners working in museums and care services who were meeting at the SPARK! event for a programme of workshops, talks, discussions. I was amazed to hear how Ellie Nocum (Luther Manor Care) uses visual art to teach people with dementia about the brain. By projecting an image of the Alzheimer brain onto a canvas for them to paint with their own choice of colour and brushes: people with dementia learning about their own physiology whilst learning about painting.

There is so much that can be done with the skills and creativity of artists, writers, musicians, dancers to improve the lives of people with dementia here in the UK, it is a wonder that it is seen as something superfluous to care, rather than an essential aspect.  Why are we not training arts graduates to work in this field?

Although my focus was primarily about using creative writing with people with dementia, the comments and conversations exhibited alongside the paintings at the Ferry Buildings Gallery showed me how to bring together words and visual art. Written comments that reflect the fragmentary nature of dementia, methods of working which I could replicate here in the UK with little cost, just a change of attitude within the structures of policy makers and service providers.

Sylvia’s legacy was more than just her painting and her teaching, it was also her sense of freedom that shines through her long years living with Alzheimer’s. I also found her via the internet at the Vancouver Guild of Artists, beautiful work that she had produced in response to her love of travel, her use of different materials creating abstract natural landscapes. Her obituary stated that her recommendation for a successful life were three essentials: creativity, spirituality and a love of cats.

Another of her statements reminds us  ‘You have to have guts to take risks.’

Sylvia crossed the boundary between professional artist to creative participant with dementia, still able to demonstrate her true spirit and love of life.

Sylvia: artist, teacher, traveller, spiritual guide.


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