Conference Notes

During a six-day stretch at the end of May/beginning of June, I attended two terrific conferences devoted to caregiving: the Arts in Healthcare Summit sponsored by the Orange County Arts Council on May 31st in Middletown, NY; and the Aging in Place Partnership’s Creative Caregiving for Healthy Living on June 5th in my old stomping ground of South Brunswick, NJ.

The keynote speech in Middletown was given by Dr. James Noble, a neurologist at Columbia University with a private practice specializing in memory disorders. Dr. Noble is also a founder of Arts & Minds, a nonprofit organization partnering with the Studio Museum in Harlem to provide art-centered experiences for dementia patients and their caregivers. His talk was a detailed overview of Alzheimer’s research and treatment approaches as they’ve evolved since the 1900s. For all of us artists in attendance, hearing a research scientist and practicing physician make the case for integrating the arts with medical care was almost as good as a solo show at MOMA :)

Paul Nolan, Director of Music Therapy Programs in Drexel University’s Department of Creative Arts Therapies, spoke in the afternoon about using music to elicit responses in patients with dementia that would then become the basis for more positive engagement. He ended his presentation with something Andrew Sackler said that offers a fresh perspective on those we partner with: “Art is passion seeking discipline; science is discipline seeking passion.”

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Family Matters

Continuing with my intermittent recap of the spring, I wanted to share this sumi-e drawing that was done by a woman at the Vassar-Warner Home in Poughkeepsie, NY. It was completed during one of Mill Street Loft‘s classes at this charming senior residence, but it wasn’t until the six-week program’s culminating art exhibit that I had a chance to talk to its creator:

(Click on image to enlarge.)

Family Matters_938

As D~ and I were hanging her painting, she explained to me what it was all about: magenta represented love; the bird figure, her son; the black lines, fighting with her sister; and the blue in the upper left-hand corner was the sky, symbolizing an upcoming trip to see her grandchild for the first time.

I wasn’t close to D~ because she missed a lot of classes and didn’t stay too long whenever she did show up. I therefore have no idea whether she consciously chose to depict her family dynamics when she first touched ink to paper. The image nevertheless became a vehicle for her to share her thoughts about a subject charged with deep, conflicting emotions. Here, within the confines of an 8.5” x11” sheet of paper, was enough material to fill a book.

Flight School

June and July have been busy months, filled with conferences and two ElderSparks presentations, Mill Street Loft art programs for the elderly and adults with developmental disabilities, and planting seeds for new initiatives. In addition, I’ve started working privately with an 86 year-old woman whom I see two hours/day, two times/week, to bring fresh stimulation into her life.

As we get further into the summer, I hope to share some favorite “snapshots” from the past few weeks. Here is one of the more memorable to start:

June 6, I assisted at a workshop for Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers at the Vassar College art museum. It was a joint project of the Alzheimer’s Association and Mill Street Loft, and modeled after the highly regarded Museum of Modern Art program, Meet Me at MoMA.

The session began with a gallery talk introducing the group to three different works on display. Afterwards, participants were given twenty–thirty minutes to commune with one of the three pieces and begin working on a drawing that reflected their personal response. We then went upstairs where more supplies were available to complete the exercise.

(Click on images to enlarge.)

Calder Mobile_019

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A Birthday Anniversary




Lillian Goldsmith, ElderSparks co-founder, June 19, 1912 – May 16, 2011


The foreground figure was the base of a lamp in my parents’ living room that I always admired.



A Sumi-e Galleri-e

Our second sumi-e brush painting workshop  at the Vassar-Warner home produced an impressive collection of drawings by the residents who participated. Gone were the hesitation and fear that greeted the technique when first introduced two weeks earlier; instead, everyone dived in as if they were doing it all their lives — which was a pretty long time for some of them!

(Click on images to enlarge.)

Charlotte Painting_734

Charlotte begins working.

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Sumi-e, Sumi-e, What Can You Do Me?**

The Vassar-Warner home in Poughkeepsie, NY was the setting two weeks ago for a workshop devoted to sumi-e brush painting. It was led by Jennifer Axinn-Weiss, a Mill Street Loft teaching artist and expressive arts therapist, who was filling in for MSL’s Artistic Director for Outreach Programs, Joan Henry.

Sumi-e was first developed in China almost 1500 years ago. Jennifer thought that its focus on the natural world, and interest in capturing the essence of a subject with spontaneity and as few strokes as possible, would be a good follow-up to our previous spring sessions. As an added bonus, sumi-e painting has a calming, peaceful energy associated with eastern meditative traditions.

If ever there was a need for such energy, it manifested before class even started. Residents drifted in while we were still setting up, and Rose, the 97 year-old woman who announced last week she would stand on her head to celebrate her 100th birthday, started having an anxiety attack. She couldn’t hear what was being said around the table and thought she was missing important instructions. Speaking directly to her in a loud voice from a close distance didn’t help either, so I communicated with her through writing and suggested she just be patient until class began and everything would become clear. That, together with a hand on her shoulder and the presence of TK, our teenage assistant, beside her, brought comfort. From then on, she took to sumi-e like an old pro and produced one drawing after another — even adding color and sparkles as the morning progressed.

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Send in the Clowns

Last Thursday’s Mill Street Loft program at the Vassar-Warner home — a mobile-making project with spring as its theme — reinforced for me why I’ve liked working with the residents here. In addition to being so open and appreciative, they share lots of laughs. Their humor is all the more remarkable for its appearance amidst frailty, cognitive decline, and physical ailments. Does the art making help these seniors transcend their challenges, or does it mostly attract those who already have that propensity? I suspect it’s some of both.

Perhaps I should do more research with Rose, who’ll turn 100 in three years. When Donna, Vassar-Warner’s activities supervisor, asked how she anticipated celebrating her centennial birthday, she replied with a grin: “By standing on my head.” Rose, btw, completed stage one of her mobile before anyone else.

Admiring Rose's Mobile Efforts_802

(l-r): Mike, Rose, and Joan admire Rose’s mobile efforts.

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Garden Atelier

As spring unfolds with cascading waves of color and intoxicating smells, a special garden took root in Poughkeepsie, NY last week. It was the work of 9 older women, residents of the Vassar-Warner home for seniors, whose paper collages reimagined the season just as the impressionists interpreted their world with paint.

(Click on images to enlarge.)

Vassar-Warner Garden

Joan Henry, the Artistic Director for Outreach Programs at Mill Street Loft — a 32 year-old organization merging the arts and social services — led the two-hour workshop, the first of six weekly sessions building on an earlier program that took place last winter. Despite some initial self-doubt and puzzlement, the women were excited to be back: several dived in with their green thumbs before Joan had even completed her introductory remarks.

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Something to Keep in Mind

A friend just sent me this beautiful story:

A few years ago, when he was quite old & frail, I heard Krishnamurti address a large assembly. He spoke in his accustomed softness & care for a few minutes before calling on a guy who had raised his hand with a question. Krishnamurti answered slowly, then stopped & began again, then stopped again. He said his aging had caused him to be less sharp & would the fellow just come down & hold his hand. It was a teaching for us all that some day all that might be left of us is our love.

Stephen Levine

To which I might add: Why wait till then?

The Power of Art

Of all the articles and commentary about the tragic killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School that I read, none touched me as personally as a recent story about the McDonnell family who lost their 7 year-old daughter Grace.

“The McDonnells were overcome when they first saw Grace’s white casket at the funeral home. ‘You felt like the floor was falling out beneath you and your breath was taken away,’ [Grace’s mother, Lynn,] said.

“But then, they pulled out Sharpies of all colors and began drawing: peace signs, ice cream cones, lighthouses, sea gulls [on the coffin]. The family said it looked like it was covered in graffiti by the time they were done.

“[They] also brought Grace’s favorite pocketbook, seashells, hair bows and flip-flops, as well as her sunglasses and a frying pan. Her father placed his New York Yankees cap with her. Grace loved Taylor Swift and Kenny Chesney — the family gave her music from both.

“‘When we left, we were like: She’s fully stocked,’ her mom recalled. ‘It was like we had joy again.’”


It reminded me of how I passed the time at my mother’s bedside in a hospital and hospice during her last six weeks of life: turning to art as a way to make her final days more meaningful for both of us. Inspired by their daughter’s passion for painting and drawing, the McDonnells drew upon their own creativity to stay connected to Grace and support her with all their love. A lack of artistic talent might have deterred others, but it brought this family even closer to the child they  lost — as revealed in this Anderson Cooper interview (6:45 mark):


NOTE: If you have the fortitude, read the comments that accompany the above video. Apparently, there are some citizens who consider the McDonnell’s composure yet another sign that the elementary school murders were a government/mass media hoax.  

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