Friday, 21 February 2014

Vermeer and the Saturday afternoon cinema

Lois writes about the art process in Making Memories:

I've been having a re-think about techniques for making art. I've always steered clear of tracing, the word 'CHEAT' rings too loudly in my ears. For me, it has connotations of other 'childish' activities such as dot-to-dot or colour-by-number. All bundled together, these seem condescending and simplistic when given as an activity to an older generation who have shaped and navigated a complex world.

However, what we're trying to achieve with arthur+martha is to give confidence and a voice to people, many of whom haven't drawn for 50 or 60 years. We often work with people who have dementia, and may experience anomalies with sight, causing them to interpret the world around them in unusual ways. In fact, normal ageing can lead to visual difficulties including cataracts, glaucoma, muscular degeneration. Ah, getting older can be so much fun. 

So how to encourage confidence, without condescension? How to foster a sense of pride in people's achievements, although their skills have changed?

Bernard meets John Wayne  
Yesterday we used tracing as part of a creative/reminiscence package, investigating how films and books created the background for play acting. Bernard (above) chose the photograph of John Wayne and carefully re-interpreted him in line on acetate. This isn't as simple as it sounds, the lines were drawn sensitively, each selected with care. The physical act of drawing supports fine motor skills, creates an atmosphere of calm and deep concentration and can help stimulate further reminiscence and discussion. 

We are in fact keeping good company when it comes to using techniques such as tracing. It's thought that the artist Vermeer (and Old Masters generally) used optical aids such as the camera obscura to develop skill and technique. Cheating?

Artistically, the pieces created yesterday felt very poignant. Bernard's drawing of a childhood hero, sits with his lines of reminiscence describing hide and seek in a bombed out Oldham. The photo above evokes the boy he was then, with the man he is now. The screen bravado of Wayne is layered with acceptance and real, lived experience.

Vera carefully drew from a photo of Clarke Gable. Her writing on the layered acetate shares her joy of the cinema as a shy young women - and her late husband who confidently asked her on their first date to the flicks, several decades ago.  

Some of the group were very happy just drawing, with no need to trace. Molly's drawing (shown above) is of Shirley Temple. Molly described the cinema as escapism, leaving the films dancing and singing like her heroine, in contrast to the poverty she lived with. In the photo she has juxtaposed her Shirley with Faye Dunaway's glammed-up gangster-ette in Bonny and Clyde. 

Roy (below) shared with my dad a love of the gangster movies. His Edward G Robinson snarling in sharp focus, belies the gentle face behind. Roy's image was a diptych of two Edward Gs, one smiling the other a frown.

Other firm favourites for films and play acting were cowboys and indians, the Lone Ranger, doctors and nurses. As a child, who would you have chosen to play? And is the trace of that role model still with you now?

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Carers and sharers

Making Memories

Phil writes

We're coming to the end of our run of workshops at a dementia drop-in at Royton, running sessions convened and observed by psychologist Polly Kaiser. We have had some fascinating feedback from participants - below is an example of a very thoughtful response. Because group dynamics are crucial for folks dealing with dementia, who often feel vulnerable, discussion about the atmosphere of the group is at the core of this. We were also interested by the careful distinction between 'carers' and 'sharers' at the end of this comment. Although our work frequently has a therapeutic outcome, we draw a distinction between our role of artists and that of carers or therapists - but we've never managed to do it so succinctly as in the following quote.

Participant Comment

The danger is of service-users feeling embarrassed and if you can overcome it. People feel embarrassed by the condition, dementia - but the atmosphere in this group means people feel comfortable and valued. You're not encroaching into dangerous territory if you keep things fairly light, if the tone is introduced with a light touch. There's a lot of skill managing a group like this, group dynamics is a science of itself.

People can be shut off by embarrassment, of their own volition. There's a stigma with mental health and society needs to address that. But I find activities like this therapeutic. People feel comfortable, not threatened, at ease with others. It engenders a feeling of confidence and fellowship. The nice thing about this group is that people are affected by a common theme - and others' duty is sharing (not caring) and improving quality of life.

Participant in dementia drop-in group, Oldham

13 February 2014

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Belle Vue Aces

Our project Making Memories touches on the theme of high days and holidays this year. One of the highest days you could get, in many Mancunian people's experience, was an outing to Belle Vue, a kind of prototype theme park which opened in the 1930s and continued to be an iconic part of many lives until late 20th Century. Here, a group conversation about Belle Vue is made into a cut-up poem. The writer, Michael, has a visual impairment and so arranged many of the cut-up lines by touch (see our blogs about cut-up earlier this year). The result has all the hurly and hustle of a busy fairground...

Belle Vue Aces

motor racing, wrestling
a scenic railway
a rowing boat
all the rides and that
only a kid
speedway Saturday night, Saturday night a shilling
bikes speeding Saturday evening happiness
(I like dancing but he was hopeless)
Belle Vue Aces, hotdogs yeah
went with school
get the tram to see the animals
two fellas knocking hell out of each other
a lot of things to do when I was a kid
10 Pin Bowling, Slot Palace, Miniature Railway
in a cone, ice creams, cheap in them days
last century
performing animals, people chatting
amusement park, know  what I mean?
big building with music inside
reserved seats, undercover
International Wrestling 7pm, a bar
Slot Palace, remember Speedway
Huge Fun, amuse
me brother, me sister, me dad, me
in the 1970s a bit of sugar, a movie show
all the attractions colourful, noisy
Daleks flashing lights
a red machine, sat inside
a full day out, morning til evening

13 February 2014
The Grange, Oldham

Monday, 10 February 2014

Fold-out easy-assemble poetry! Just like IKEA but less frustrating!

Project: Making Memories

There's a huge tradition of experimental writing that's often ignored as a resource for workshops, especially workshops for people who have dementia. In fact bringing looseness and playful logic into such sessions can free up people to be more expressive of their lives. The fact that the whole process is an experiment takes away the pressure to be Right or  the fear of being Wrong - we simply try out something to discover what'll happen.

Today we used a very simple but beautifully effective technique, the fold-in. This particular variation was shown to me by a student and is derived from William Burroughs' methods, from back in the day. The basic idea is that you merge two different, contrasting pieces of writing to make something that takes the best from both.

1. Fold a blank piece of paper in half.

2. Pass round pieces of chocolate and fruit for participants to taste.

3. Write down people's description of the taste sensations onto one half of the paper, listening out for the sumptuous, the unusual, the indulgent.

4. Write down people's memories of contrasting deprivation (in this instance we asked people to describe war rationing) into the other half of the paper.

5. Fold out the paper and read across both halves, so that the lines blend into one another, ready mixed.

This method can generate wonderfully rich micro-detail, mixed with the pleasures of more general reminiscence. The taste sensations bring in surprising and evocative turns of language, while the reminiscence tends to have more narrative power. Because this is writing by chance, some of the lines won't work, others will be a welcome surprise. Edit according to your own judgement, trying to keep the surprises and the quirkiness.  

Friday, 7 February 2014

drawing for the scared

Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up. Picasso

Yesterday we were working on the project Making Memories, with older people (many with dementia) living in Oldham. Reminiscence, poetry and drawing were inspired by the smell, look and touch of 'fine' chocolate and exotic fruit. And of course the taste.

pineapple drawing in oil pastel

So how do you encourage someone to DRAW, when they might not have picked up a pencil for years? 

The environment is very important - a bright, warm, quiet, familiar room is helpful for people, particularly those with dementia. A room in which there will be few distractions and interruptions, a 'safe' environment, where people can 'risk' putting pencil to paper.  It can be very frightening to make a drawing. Fears abound: all of us people hate being faced with our own limitations - art making can feel like a big reveal of oneself, particularly if ill. So getting to know each other and the group leader/volunteers is really important. Make introductions in a friendly and informal manner and emphasise that there is no Right or Wrong, just the adventure of the process.

Small is beautiful. Most people benefit from smaller groups at some point in an activity, particularly if living with dementia or hearing loss. Trusted volunteers and staff are invaluable to encourage people to contribute to a creative activity. Small groups allow the artist or group leader to give more time to each participant. This enables personal-centred care, allowing people to build confidence.

Celebrate achievements, however small they might at first appear. Phil and I often work with people knowing little or nothing about their health background, unaware 'til after the session that for some picking up a pencil and making one single mark on a piece of paper can be an enormous gesture of faith. Seeing people taking many minutes to write a single word is a humbling experience. A careful balance has to be struck; it's important not to be condescending.

Timing. Our sessions are typically 2 hours, including one tea break. For people with some health conditions like advanced dementia 1 hour is long enough, particularly when you are all getting to know each other. Flexibility is all important, if an activity is going well, flow with it. If you feel you are banging your head against a wall, move onto something else: time for an all-important Great British Tea Break? Regular tea breaks and biscuits are very popular and at times vital. Everyone has good and bad days, health problems or not. Sometimes folks are simply not in the mood for making, sometimes pain or discomfort is just too distracting. Try and try again, but possibly tomorrow or next week.

Reminiscence can combine beautifully with creative work. However, like art making itself, memories can be painful, we never know what may trigger a deep felt sadness. A smell, a photo that might seem innocent, can upset someone else. Be led by the participants, if they want to talk something through and it's not upsetting the rest of the group, let them. Don't be scared of going into these areas because they can bring intimacy and also release, but never push and if someone wants to move on, move on. We always try to end on an optimistic note. 

Subject matter. Pick your subject matter and materials with great care, they are crucial ingredients. Making Memories is all about how looking and handling materials can stimulate not just reminiscence but creativity. Yesterday we were playing with all our senses. Tasting activities are easy to share, don't necessarily require language and conversation (one woman I worked yesterday made it very clear how much she liked the food samples with an array of mmmms) and can be a great way for people with dementia to participate. In many ways, taste is the most pleasurable of our senses. Fruit looks great too, the familiar shapes and bold colours are terrific to use as basis for drawing, which is why there are so many paintings of bowls of fruit in art galleries. Yesterday we provided an array of fruit and paper, oil pastels and soft pastels to draw with.  Participants were encouraged to loosen up, not to worry to much about end results but to enjoy the process. With encouragement, most of the group picked up the art materials and joined in, many drawing for the first time in years.  

Monday, 3 February 2014

The Jumblies

"My mind's jumbled, but it doesn't matter - we are all jumbling up here." (M)

Phil writes about dementia and the project Making Memories:

This is a quote from one of the participants in a creative writing session we hosted this week. 'M' has a diagnosis of dementia and this quote for all its straightforwardness - M is a very straight-talker - contains considerable complexity, which I'd like to try unpicking a little, if I can.

I'd also like to follow the trail of our last blog, which discusses the idea that allowing chance and ambiguity into creative writing processes for people with dementia actually takes pressure off participants. It allows people who have unusual ways of thinking to sidestep rigid logic structures. We've used cut-up procedures a la William Burroughs in our writing groups for over a decade and have observed the liberating effect that it can have for some folks. (A word of caution here - it can be overwhelming and disorientating for others, which was of course part of Burroughs' intention.) 

Molly's observation touches on three big areas in one small sentence. Firstly she observes her own confusion. I love the chutzpah with which she cuts a big disease down to size, using the cuter word 'jumble'. Secondly - and happily - she feels able to shove the negative connotations that this confusion might have to one side, casually remarking that it "doesn't matter" here. Thirdly, she points out that not only is there an INTENTIONAL jumbling going on, but this jumbling is being undertaken by a whole group of like-minded writers. Dementia, for a short time, ceases to be a disability and becomes instead an adjunct to making a poem. And the loneliness of dementia is perhaps slightly abated, because this is a gathering - we are in it together.

I use the word perhaps very advisedly. This is because we are often reminded in these workshops of the devastating  terror and havoc that can be wrought by some dementias. One of our participants 'R' at the end of this same session told me how difficult "this thing" dementia can be. I said I couldn't imagine it. This confession rang true with him - "Nobody can imagine it," he said, "but sometimes they'll tell you they can."

I'd like to end with a little of Lewis Carroll's wonderful poem which has given the title to this blog. It is often described as a nonsense poem, but remembering these encounters now, it seems to carry a lot of truth:

They went to sea in a Sieve, they did, 
In a Sieve they went to sea: 
In spite of all their friends could say, 
On a winter's morn, on a stormy day, 
In a Sieve they went to sea! 
And when the Sieve turned round and round, 
And every one cried, "You'll all be drowned!" 
They called aloud, "Our Sieve ain't big, 
But we don't care a button! we don't care a fig! 
In a Sieve we'll go to sea!"