I recently started working with a number of private clients. One is a woman in her nineties, a former art teacher diagnosed with early-stage Alzheimer’s and no longer in touch with her artist self. L~ and I work at her kitchen table, joined by A~, a young woman from Ghana who serves as her full-time aide. A~ has plans to become a radiologist, but it wouldn’t surprise me if she ends up going to art school — that’s how enthralled she is about being introduced to the world of art.

At each of our first few sessions, I began with a simple, collaborative, warm-up exercise that requires neither talent nor expertise and is easy for a caregiver to do with a client or loved one. I like the nonverbal nature of the interaction, and the fact that it involves a certain degree of concentration, responsiveness, and connection. Some exercises are very quiet and focused while others are high energy and fun; quite often, a wonderful, serendipitous surprise awaits at the end.

In this first variation, each of us started drawing with pastels and/or markers on a sheet of paper. When 45 seconds were up, we passed our sheet to the person on our left, who continued drawing on this new page for a few seconds more. We went around the table like this for three rounds, interrupted only by L~ exclaiming, “What’s the point?” or “I don’t get it,” and me urging patience. Midway through however, I could see her old artist self peeking out: it was in the way she paused to consider the drawing, or held her pen above the page, before making her next move. The shift was subtle but striking nevertheless.

Below are some of the collaborative results from our first session. A few days later, I did the same thing with other students in a gerontology class I was taking and was struck by the difference. Comparing the efforts of both groups made me very proud of my girls.

(Click on images to enlarge.)


 Collaborative drawings, ElderSparks session.


Sample drawings, gerontology certificate class.


 A still life L~ did at the end of our first lesson. As I packed up to leave, she said, “That was fun.

I enjoyed it.”


A mirroring exercise in which one of us followed the line being drawn by our partner.

Week 2 began with the mirror drawings above, followed by a new challenge: completing one of three celebrated twentieth-century paintings by working from the center section outward, without seeing what the full painting looked like. The choices were Lady in Blue by Matisse, Blue Horse by Kandinsky, or Bedroom in Arles by van Gogh.


I proposed they begin by continuing the colors and lines that stopped at the edge of the frame.


L~ chose the Matisse but remained perplexed about why we were doing this. To help her begin, I drew an outline of the dress for her and suggested she fill it in with the same blue seen in the painting. She worked hard at mixing the right color before applying it with her brush. After a minute or two, she became more comfortable and assured. A~, on the other hand jumped right in as if she was one of Kandinsky’s apprentices. The homework assignment for both women was to extend the paintings on either side in whatever way they might imagine it being finished.


When I returned the next time, Matisse’s Lady in Blue was taped to the kitchen wall along with the still life but nothing more had been done with it. A~, who was away on a short break, had left behind her excellent start on the Kandinsky.


Our third collaboration was something I call “visual chess,” even though there’s nothing competitive about it. Two people play it by sitting on opposite sides of a letter-size sheet of paper that’s been divided into a grid of 2”x2” squares (approximately). (If there are more than two players, each person starts with their own sheet of paper which then gets passed around the table as in the earlier exercise.)

The idea is to take turns filling in one square at a time with either solid colors, lines, shapes, designs, words, numbers, etc. until all 20 squares are colored in. Like any good comic or musical improvisation, the whole thing holds together when each person is sensitive to what the others are doing — and falls apart when everyone goes in their own direction. The end results are usually very vibrant and alive.

I had expected to hear, “What’s the point?” once again, but this time, L~ pondered the empty squares before her and said, “Well, well, well!” She started tentatively by drawing diagonal lines in several boxes until she noticed their rigidity and switched to wavy lines. As we progressed, she became freer and freer with what she drew:


Later, we turned to the Lady in Blue painting. L~ explained that she hadn’t worked on it because she felt so lost. I suggested she try adding details to the background behind the woman but it was a difficult concept for her to grasp. I showed her the door behind J~ (A~’s temporary replacement), and the wall behind me, but she couldn’t connect those features with the analagous elements in the painting.

Borrowing a page from Meet Me, the Museum of Modern Art’s program for people with dementia, I asked her to describe what she saw in the painting. She pointed out how difficult it was to tell if the woman was seated or standing. I found that pretty perceptive and together we looked for clues: the hint of a curvilinear sofa behind her, the position of the subject’s left arm — which L~ was unconsciously mirroring — and agreed that the only way she’d be upright and holding her arm like that was if she was about to shoot herself! Asked what the woman held in her right hand, L~ had no idea — even the colors and shapes were as if invisible to her.

She did considerably better with objects in the van Gogh painting. I was surprised though when she told me she found it disturbing. I thought perhaps it might be due to the floor which slants so abruptly. She said, no, it’s because the paintings beside the bed tilt forward even though the wall is straight, and the window points inward rather than out. I never would have given either a second thought if she hadn’t mentioned them. It was yet another example of her visual sophistication.

(To be continued.)