The group pauses in front of a large contemporary sculpture, depicting a preacher standing before his congregation at a small country church. They walk around the piece, noticing the pews, the organist, and the variety of parishioners, and chatting as they view. Then they settle into chairs and co-facilitator Esther Smith asks: “What is one word that comes to mind when you look at this piece of art.”
“Boring,’ says one woman.
“What makes it boring?” Esther asks.
“It brings me back to my childhood, when I was stuck in church for hours,” she answers. “I was so bored.”
A few others nod. Someone asks, “When was this made? Where is it from?” and the conversation about the art continues.
Every month at the High Museum in Atlanta, Georgia, Teaching Artist Esther Smith guides a group of care partners and people living with dementia on a 90-minute gallery exploration called Musings Together.
“It’s a light-hearted, interactive experience,” Esther says. “We go at a slow pace, seeing only three to four works each time. We want people to have a comfortable, personalized experience with art.”
The open-ended conversation brings out people’s stories and ideas. Sitting in front of Giovanni Bellini’s Madona and Child, Esther asks, “What lines do you notice in this painting? Trace them in the air with your hand.”
After people trace their lines, she asks, “What line was most interesting to you?” That question might lead into a discussion of what makes this painting different. Then Esther might invite the group to pose like the picture. She might say, “How would that baby’s head feel in your hand?”
“These simple prompts launch us into deep conversations,” Esther says. She and her team are experimenting with expanding the sensory experience, including bringing out oranges when they’re gazing at a still life of fruit and letting each guest hold and examine the orange. Esther also invites people to occasionally sketch an aspect of a drawing that appeals to them, using a drawing pad on a clipboard.
“ A number of our participants have never been regular museum-goers. Now they feel comfortable here and come more often,” Esther says. “Developing a new community of friends and an expanding interest in art enriches their lives.” #
Want to look at art with someone who is living with dementia?
If you’re visiting a museum, focus on a gallery with 3-4 large and interesting pieces. Ask a docent for advice, if needed. If you’re at home, give yourself plenty to time to comfortably view a few works of art on-line or in books.
- Bring a folding chair, so you can sit.
- Chose a time of day when your partner is energetic and the gallery is relatively quiet.
- Have fun just noticing the aspects of the piece. You might invite comments on colors, textures, familiar figures, objects that seem odd to you, and other aspects.
- Ask open-ended questions, such as, “What does this piece make you think of?” “What do you like about this piece?” “How do you think that main guy feels?”
When attention wanes, move onto something else, including a lovely coffee or tea break.
Deborah Shouse is the author of Connecting in the Land of Dementia: Creative Activities to Explore Together and Love in the Land of Dementia: Finding Hope in the Caregiver’s Journey.