Gail Sachson owns Ask Me About Art, offering lectures, tours and program planning. She is Vice-Chair of the Commission of Cultural Affairs and a member of the Public Art Committee.
Applause filled the Dallas Museum of Art last week when Amanda Blake, manager of Family Experiences and Access Programs, announced the official beginning of “Meaningful Moments,” a series of art experiences designed for individuals with dementia. The program is the first of its kind in Dallas.
A 1-year-old granddaughter in stroller, spouses and caregivers accompanied about a dozen men and women in the Early Stage Dementia “Trailblazer’s ” group of the Dallas Alzheimer’s Association, led by AA Group Coordinator Gail Atwater. They gathered to look, listen and linger over art. They probably didn’t know then how much they would laugh, how much they would learn or how much they would enjoy playing the role of critic. And they probably didn’t know how easy it would be, after visiting the gallery, to choose a crayon or chalk and make their own art.
With more than 500,000 people over the age of 65 nationwide affected by Early Onset Alzheimer’s, and with no known cure, art institutions like the DMA are offering creative ways of potentially slowing down the progression of the disease in the early stages. It is hoped that conversations about art, which entail focused looking, responding and remembering, will offer joyous moments and strengthen cognitive skills.
Every third Tuesday from 10-11:30 a.m., the DMA will offer the free workshops and focus in on a particular theme. Last week’s session was “Portraits.” November will be “Space in Art” and December, “African Masks.” Discussing portraiture, Amanda chose seven paintings by artists painting in the late 19th and early 20th century, such as George Bellows, William Merritt Chase, Alice Kent Stoddard and John White Alexander. Although very different in styles, the paintings were all portraits of members of their families. Amanda creatively used this tie to initiate animated conversations about the participants’ families, which was often comical as they related stories about teenagers, pets, fashion and even ex-sisters-in-law.
“Who would you choose to have in your portrait? How would you pose? ” Amanda asked.
“My whole family. My daughter just had twins”
“I’d want a comfortable chair.”
Commenting on the bored, vacant look of most of the sitters, one participant said, “I would want at least a happy look.”
Along with the jokes and relaxed commentary, Amanda stressed the historical significance, the European influence, painting styles and backgrounds of the artists. After an hour, the group decided Fisherman’s Little Sister by Stoddard was a favorite, because she looked like she was ready to go play. And so they decided they would go play, too, and went downstairs to the Center for Creative Connections to try their hand at portraiture.
Mirrors to encourage self-portraits and an array of materials were set out with hopes that the prior gallery conversation would promote creativity.
“Just have fun,” Amanda encouraged.
“I’m not an artist. I just paint walls.”
“I don’t know what I want to do.”
“I don’t want to draw. I’m just no good,” they said.
Yet, within a short time and with soft music playing in the background, most were drawing. One initially reluctant participant said, “I wanted to be an artist, but I’m not.” Yet with some coaxing, she drew a delightful curly-haired face with a very broad smile. “A man,” she said, but she didn’t know who. She only stopped drawing because time ran out, then asked, “Do you think I could have one more paper to take home?” Just one of the “meaningful moments” to come.