The following are recollections of an art therapy session which occurred as part of the University of Alabama Honors Seminar Course, Art to Life, developed by Cognitive Dynamics Foundation. The course pairs students and persons with Alzheimer’s disease in an enriched relational experience, utilizing art therapy and reminiscence to reveal and preserve life stories and promote empathy for those experiencing cognitive impairment.
In our second art therapy session of Art to Life there were six students in attendance who were enrolled in the course, one graduate journalism student and our student facilitator for the course. An art therapist conducted the session. Our participant was Mary, a 95-year-old with Alzheimer’s disease, nearly sightless from macular degeneration, but with one of the most joyful and enlivened spirits imaginable.
Before the session our therapist had talked with me about the challenges of artistically engaging someone with poor sight. She had decided to try shaving cream art because of its use of the tactile sense, and thought this might be appealing to Mary.
One of our participants was not able to attend that day, so Mary got the group to herself. She is always so warm, and she reached out to all of us in the room. In each session she starts out by telling us how grateful she is to be there, to be included, and about how she is afraid she talks too much in the sessions. She talks about how she can’t see well. As we delved into the session, she said “Oh, this is just fabulous!” (She said this many times)
The therapist started the session with some life story discussion, and it flowed very naturally. Mary told us details about her family and we reviewed some of the life story she had relayed at the previous session. She told us about her father’s cotton farm, and about how the cotton was used for airplane wings. She mentioned that her husband was a pilot. Then the art activity started. Mary sat at one end of the table and the students filled out the rest of the space (the tables were placed in a “T” shape).
Mary was then instructed about how to squirt shaving cream into the aluminum pan, to choose her food coloring, to place drops of her favorite colors in the shaving cream, and then to swirl the colors around in patterns of her choosing with a small wooden stick. Then she was to blot a piece of watercolor paper into the mix, absorbing the color. At last, she would scrape off the shaving cream, leaving beautiful patterns of color in abstract form.
Mary sat eagerly and affirmed her interest (everything about Mary is affirming). She had some help from her students, as she said she really could not see any of the details or colors. She chose red, yellow and green food coloring, and her students helped her place the colors. The therapist then placed the wooden stick in her hand, and Mary made the patterns. The paper was blotted, and then Mary, with help, scraped the cream. This is what was left on the paper:
What happened next was miraculous, and I will never forget it. Ingeniously, and with much compassion and empathy, the therapist suggested to Mary that, since she was having trouble seeing the art, the students would be asked to each comment about what the art meant to them, and share those comments with Mary. Then Mary would be in a better position to be able to title it. So we went around the room, and each one of us told what the art made us think of, what we felt when we looked at it, etc. When the last person had shared, Mary was asked to title the art based on those comments. Quite obviously moved, Mary said she thought “Celebration” would be a good name. Then, in tears she said something I hope I never forget…
“There’s something there…a new beginning.”
She then told how she had thought that she would never be able to make art again due to her poor vision, and about how art had meant so much to her in the past. She began to speak of how wonderful her life had been, and how grateful and full of joy she is over God’s goodness in her life. She then told all of us, none of whom she could really see, how much it meant for her to know that all of us were feeling the same thing; that we all were experiencing the power of art to kindle relationship. She said “I want you all to know it, to really know it, every one of you. How important this is! I am so thankful.”
She then began to talk about how this experience was causing memories to flood into her consciousness, and about how thankful she was for this. She tenderly spoke of her wedding day, and how the minister had started a custom that was apparently not being done at that time, of having the bride and groom turn and face each other to exchange vows. As she talked about turning to face her husband and exchange the promises, she cried.
There are many other details that came out that day. It seemed that the storehouse of the heart had been unlocked. The students were so attuned to what she was saying. Everyone was completely present with each other, and with our selves, in the moment. Nothing else mattered at that time. And everyone was sharing. Mary said, “Lord, Honey, I didn’t know we were gonna have ourselves a prayer meeting today!” Then she added, “The Lord sent you all to me. I know He did.”
I could say so much more about the importance of that day. Mary was validated in her current reality, in that moment. She was creating again, and she was so thankful for that. Her spirit and memory were quickened by the experience, and she seemed to be possessed of life that transcended Alzheimer’s disease or any other limitation, and it kindled the life in each of us. We came to bring something to her that day. But we are the ones who got the benefit, the honor, the blessing. What a great privilege to have had that experience!
After the event, one of the students said that, in the car on the way home, she and her friends began to open up and share in their own vulnerability, to talk about their heartaches and some of their trials, and to try to meet each other’s needs. She said that they were all perplexed at first, but then realized it seemed right to do this after the example set by Mary. They were entering into the vast expansive warmth of the self, shared in relationship with others. That’s what Art to Life is all about.
Thank you, Mary, for sharing your art!