I haven’t blogged about Jeff and Sylvia (aka J~ and S~) since early May, which is not to say that they haven’t been doing interesting work. As Jeff continues making entries in his sketchbook, he alternates between solid colors and variegated ones, and adds a layer of complexity to his collages by joining cut-out shapes with line drawings:


A 3D assemblage by Sylvia combining folded strips of colored paper with a previous collage

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We spent the last two weeks of May creating mobiles out of colored plastic straws and pipe cleaners, an art form not yet recognized by the cognoscenti. One now hangs at a second nurse’s station, while the others adorn two different corners of the lounge that is home to our weekly ElderSparks class.

Mobile by Sylvia. The colored circles are from sheets of paper labels printed with details from different images of her art work. We’ve done the same for Jeff and distribute them as badges to help promote resident creativity and self-expression among the staff.

Mobile by Jeff

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Although Jeff would have been quite content producing mobiles for every room and hallway in the facility, I felt the need to take a break from the hard edges, geometric shapes, and bold colors we’ve been working with since January. Looking to the natural world — which is largely off limits to wheelchair-bound seniors in nursing homes — I turned to the burls on a magnolia tree I was pruning at the time. To me, they resembled gnarly creatures or ancient artifacts, and offered an excellent opportunity for creative exploration. Jeff, whose speaking ability is severely compromised by a stroke he suffered years ago, referred to them as “promising” when I asked what thoughts, feelings, or images they evoked.

Magnolia burls

It’s not unusual for an ElderSparks session to begin with befuddlement and stuckness, and blossom into excited activity, achievement, and wonder. Although Sylvia and Jeff had trouble articulating any personal associations with the burls, they had an easier time revisioning them by adding decorative elements. Each needed help positioning and anchoring the objects due to limited dexterity but the results were completely their own:

“Birds of a Feather” by Jeff


“Octopus” by Sylvia


By the end of the hour, Sylvia was beside herself with happiness and could barely stop talking as she kvelled about the art on display in the room. She paid ElderSparks a high compliment too that spoke volumes about the kind of person she is — a disabled woman in her nineties who has yet to lose her zest for life: “I’ve learned so much; gained so many ideas about taking everyday objects — trees, cord, string, and fabric — and putting them together in the most unusual way to make a piece of art out of them. I have taught my daughter what I learned. You have opened my eyes.”

Before leaving, I gave Jeff a gentle shoulder rub, something else that would greatly enhance his sedentary life if only it occurred more regularly. The words “God bless you” came flying out of his mouth in the midst of it, without any struggle or hesitation. For a moment, his aphasia had disappeared.